The Stone Thrower
By Jael Ealey Richardson
Thomas Allen Publishers
256 pp; $24.95
The American football quarterback, Chuck Ealey led his University of Toledo Rockets to three undefeated seasons in college football, but he had misfortune to do so at a time when the National Football League looked askance at black quarterbacks. Because the NFL would not draft him, Ealey — like African-American quarterbacks Bernie Custis before him, and Warren Moon after — came to play for the Canadian Football League in 1972. It was Ealey’s best season: he led the Hamilton Tiger-Cats to a Grey Cup victory and was the game’s Most Valuable Player.
Ealey’s daughter, Jael Ealey Richardson, never got to see her father play football because she was born in 1980 — two years after her father sustained a lung injury and retired from the sport. In her memoir The Stone Thrower: A Daughter’s Lessons, a Father’s Life, Ealey Richardson could have taken the easy route by writing a praiseworthy tract meant to set her father up as a role model and hero. Ealey, the exquarterback, does come across as a devoted family man with a depth of vision and discipline that carried him far beyond the stadium lights. However, his daughter’s memoir is engaging because she situates his life in the context of the civil rights movement in the United States, and addresses issues of race in her own family as well as in homes, on the streets and in schools and campuses in the U.S. and Canada.
Ultimately, The Stone Thrower is as much a meditation on a daughter’s emerging sense of identity in Canada as it is a father-daughter memoir. The two threads are inextricably linked, one enriching the other.
“For most of my life I have felt watery like an ocean, my sense of self disoriented and bottomless, my blackness lost and out of place in a country known for cold winters, covered in whiteness,” Ealey Richardson writes in her opening page. “And I don’t know how I got here, to this place of uncertainty. I just know it has something to do with my father.
“Every time people ask me, where are you from, I give the same answer: ‘I was born here. I’m Canadian. My parents are American.’
‘But where are you really from?’ they ask me.”
As Ealey Richardson explains, although both her parents are black, her own complexion is sufficiently light and curls sufficiently loose that black peers in her Mississauga, Ont., high school questioned and challenged her blackness in the 1990s. She received similar treatment from the white coach of her University of Guelph soccer team, who got a justified earful for trying to tell Ealey Richardson she wasn’t really black.
Racial tension loomed prominently during her father’s upbringing in Ohio in the 1950s and ’60s. When Chuck Ealey was 17 and still in high school, for example, a police officer broke up a conversation he was having with a white girl in a parked car and reported the event to the girl’s father, who rushed to take his daughter away by the arm. Although her father would never have had to question his own identity as a young black man coming of age during the civil rights era, Ealey Richardson found it difficult to establish a confident self-concept while growing up in Mississauga in the 1980s and ’90s.
In the cafeteria at Meadowvale High School in the 1990s, sitting at the table with black students meant that she “talked about hip-hop and R&B, reggae and jazz music. No rock and no country.” But in the white world, where she generally felt it was easier to create friendships, she watched hockey and followed baseball. “I chose my black and white moments in high school based on convenience and circumstance,” Ealey Richardson writes. “I was worried about what would happen when my two worlds collided.”
Ealey Richardson’s memoir focuses on identity, because she was often assumed to be of mixed race when she was growing up and because it took her more than two decades to become comfortable with herself. This makes Ealey Richardson’s memoir a rare beast in the world of Canadian literature. The memoir — and in particular the slave narrative — forms the foundation of African-American and African-Canadian literary expression. Stories of journeys in and out of slavery in the U.S. and Canada form the earliest types of works published by black authors on this continent. However, an open meditation on black and white racial identity — who am I and where do I fit in? — rarely appears in Canada. Two anthologies — Miscegenation Blues: Voices of Mixed Race Women (1994) and Other Tongues: Mixed Race Women Speak Out (2012) are notable Canadian exceptions, but the gold standard for the single-authored memoir about black and white identity is The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother by American essayist and musician James McBride.
McBride, who has never met his black, biological father and was raised in Brooklyn along with 11 siblings by a white, Jewish mother who denied for the longest time that she was white or Jewish, asked his mother one day if God was black or white.
In The Color of Water, McBride offers a snippet of the conversation that ensued:
“‘God’s not black. He’s not white. He’s a spirit.’
‘Does he like black or white people better?’
‘He loves all people. He’s a spirit …’
‘What color is God’s spirit?’
‘It doesn’t have a color,’ she said. ‘God is the color of water. Water doesn’t have a color.’”
Like McBride with his secretive Jewish mother who berated him for asking questions about their family history, Ealey Richardson had to cajole her reticent African-American father for years to open up about his early years growing up in Portsmouth, Ohio.
“I am the daughter of someone famous,” Ealey Richardson writes, “which most people think is ideal, thrilling. It certainly has its benefits. I can eat for free at a Lebanese restaurant and stay in a high-end hotel for next to nothing whenever I visit Toledo, the city where my father secured his stardom. The downside to being the daughter of someone famous is that up to a few years ago, there were a ton of people who knew more about him than I did.”
Sometimes, the most painful struggles to develop a sense of belonging drive writers to encapsulate, beautifully and uniquely, the human condition.
In Ealey Richardson’s valuable addition to the body of memoirs about family and identity, there is much to be discovered about fathers and daughters, the different ways of experiencing blackness and how Canada has been enriched by the arrival of a long string of quarterbacks and other expatriates who had to leave the U.S. to find their real home.
review by Lawrence Hill via arts.nationalpost.com