One of the qualities of Wayne Grady’s novel that came out this last autumn is that it makes Windsor, Ontario into an interesting place. All joking aside – it really is an interesting place, if only for the fact that it was one of the final stops for slaves escaping the American south on the Underground Railroad.
The cover says it all quite nicely: race is at the heart of this book. And not race as we know it today, with immigration changing the face of our country, at least in urban settings. This is race as in black-and-white, set in the 1930s and 1940s. The novel features a young man named Jackson (he prefers Jack) Lewis, the product of two black parents who ends up being able to “pass” because he looks so absolutely white. And in those days, and maybe even now, who knows, if a black man could pass for white, why wouldn’t he? There are so many advantages when you belong to the majority.
The ability to “pass” is at the heart of many a good American story. Think of Philip Roth’s The Human Stain. Or even Black Like Me, that 1960s racial shocker. But Wayne Grady has brought the phenomenon to our territory, though there’s a constant and fascinating back-and-forth between Windsor and Detroit that illuminates the meaning of race on both sides of the border. Even my family contains a story of someone passing, though with a twist: one of my cousins was so dark that most people didn’t realize hers was an interracial couple when she married a black American from Texas.
Grady’s book reads like a house on fire, which is one of the first virtues of a novel in my opinion. A World War II troop ship, a Detroit race riot – the settings are varied and vibrant. And the fact that Jack is just too damned white for his father’s liking creates some heart-breaking situations. He never really believes that Jack is his child, no matter what his wife says, and Jack pays him back, sooner or later, by running away from home and ending up at the police station, where he claims to be the rejected son of an upper-class white family. And when a black man shows up there to take the boy home…
The book was criticized in some quarters, I learned, because Jack Lewis, the main character, does not change or undergo any transformations in the course of the story. He begins by wanting to pass, refusing to recognize his family and his heritage, and at the end of the novel, he has exactly the same mentality. True, he doesn’t change, and he suffers from his own refusal to accept who and what he is. But everyone around him changes. One by one, friends and lovers tell him they know his real identity, and that it doesn’t really matter to them. Jack doesn’t change; the world around him does. But he remains deaf to that changing place, and that’s his tragic side.
In the past in this blog, I’ve talked about using your family as story material. I don’t know everything about the author’s story, but it’s clear he comes from a family similar in background to the Lewis gang. (Except that the author must imbibe less than the Lewis bunch, otherwise he would never have been able to write this book!) But the writing of Emancipation Day, I have a hunch, had to wait until certain members of the author’s family passed – and here I don’t mean passed for white. In that way, Wayne Grady displayed more delicate attention to his family than I have to mine.