It’s not always possible to pinpoint the exact moment when a book is conceived, when the germ of a discovery meets the seed of an idea and a little curly thing that may or may not become a book is formed. But in the case of Emancipation Day, I can recall the climactic moment as clearly as though it was last night. I was sitting at a wooden microfiche desk in the Windsor Public Library, spooling through the 1901 census records for Windsor, Ontario, my native city, looking for my great-grandfather.
It was 1995. I was in Windsor with Merilyn, who was researching her book, The Convict Lover: she had learned that after his release from Kingston Penitentiary in 1920, her convict had come to Windsor, for reasons that might have had something to do with rum-running, and Merilyn wanted to see if there was any record of his activities in the archives. While she searched old street directories and other references in the workspace beside mine, I thought I would look for records of my own family in early census reports.
I knew that my great-grandfather had come to Windsor in the 1880s, that he had been a barber, and that he had had three sons named Leason, Harlan, and William. Family stories had always had it that we came from Ireland – the “O” in O’Grady having been shed somewhere in mid-ocean – and I had some idea of finding out which county in Ireland contained the family seat, of maybe taking my father there on his 70th birthday, which was coming up. I thought the records in Windsor would tell me where to start looking.
I found my great-grandfather easily enough. He turned up on the very first page of the census report. What luck: Merilyn hadn’t even found her elusive convict yet. There was great-grandpapa: Andrew Jackson Grady, age 39; occupation: barber. It had never occurred to me to wonder why an Irish immigrant in the 1880s would bear the name of an American president, perhaps it was an Irish joke: it had been Andrew Jackson who had booted the British out of Louisiana in the Battle of New Orleans in 1814. I knew the O’Grady clan were staunch supporters of the British monarchy: after the clan’s valiant defense of the British king during the Battle of Something-or-Other in the 1700s, the O’Gradys were allowed to keep their hats on in the presence of royalty. I knew this; I had done my research. I planned to buy myself a good hat in case I ever met royalty.
Andrew Jackson Grady’s wife, it turned out, was named Huldah, another strange name for an Irishwoman, but what did I know? Perhaps it was an Old Celtic version of the Germanic Hilda. (I have since learned that Huldah is an ancient Hebrew name, meaning “weasel.”) And there were the three sons: William, my grandfather; Great-Uncle Leason, whom I’d never met; and Uncle Harley, whom I remembered as a small, quiet man who hovered at the edges of photographs and lived in a downtown hotel for reasons that were never quite clear.
The 1890 census was one of those long-form surveys, with columns added to help the government compile a clearer image of the cultural makeup of the country. So I looked along the column headings to see if the census-taker had recorded where in Ireland the Gradys had boarded ship. Ah, “Country of Origin,” that would be it. I looked down the column to Andrew Jackson’s line: “United States,” it read. That was odd, I thought: had we come to Canada via the U.S., perhaps after a short stint on Ellis Island, in New York, having our luggage defumigated for potato blight?
I looked at the next column heading: “Ethnic Origin.” Well, this would be interesting. Would they call us Anglo-Saxons? Hardly. More likely something more specific, like “Irish,” or else an entirely general category, like “Caucasian,” or perhaps “European.” No, none of the above: under “Ethnic Origin,” it read, “African.”
It takes a while for the brain to register something that is totally at odds with what it has come to expect. If you look out your bedroom window one morning and instead of seeing the giant maple that has been there for the past 45 years, you see an office tower, or a herd of elephants, your brain takes a few seconds off. It goes into a state comparable to what a computer does when you see that little multi-coloured paint ball spinning away on your screen. You can’t really call it thinking. It’s more like searching for a toe-hold on reality, or scratching one’s head while staring blankly at the elephants.
It would be a cliché to say that the census page swam before my eyes: the microfiche screen may have wavered a bit due to a power fluctuation. Or that my ears filled with a roaring sound, like that of a Dash-8 taking off – it might simply have been the hum of the machine. It is true that I was no longer conscious of Merilyn sitting at the workspace beside mine, or of me sitting at the workspace beside hers, or of time passing, or of my heart pounding. I barely recall looking down the next column, “Race,” and seeing the letter “B” beside my family’s names. I had no need to check the legend to determine that “B” stood for “Black,” rather than, say, “Burgundy,” but I did anyway, just to give my brain something to do.
My father’s family – my family – was not from Ireland; we were from Africa. We were – we are – African Canadians.
When the little paint ball stopped spinning, I looked up from the microfiche screen and gently tapped Merilyn on the shoulder.
“Look at this,” I said, and there must have been something in my voice.
I didn’t point to what I had discovered, I let her discover it for herself. When she did, her eyebrows shot up and her jaw dropped and her eyes went round and I saw what I must have looked like myself. She looked at me as though seeing me for the first time, which in a way she was. The first feeling I remember having was exhilaration, bordering on elation. My first thought was: I have a family history.
My second thought was: I have a book.
It was nice that Merilyn was on hand for the conception.