Long-distance run for justice
Races: The Trials & Triumphs of Canada’s Fastest Family
by Valerie Jerome
Fredericton: Goose Lane Editions, 2023
$24.95 / 9781773102900
Reviewed by Daniel Gawthrop
Last fall was the season of the sprinter for the sports memoir in Canada. In addition to the Ontario stories of Andre De Grasse (Ignite: Unlock the Hidden Potential Within) and Donovan Bailey (Undisputed: A Champion’s Life), there was a profoundly affecting B.C. story in the aptly-titled Races by Valerie Jerome, younger sister of Harry Jerome—a three-time Olympian and world record holder, once the fastest man on earth. Unlike the other two, which chronicle more recent events (De Grasse still competes), Jerome’s memoir recounts a harrowing struggle for acceptance and personal success during a deeply racist period in Canadian history.
It took her nearly 40 years to complete this account of her and Harry’s lives and of his legendary athletic career, which blazed the trail for every Black Canadian sprinter to follow and spawned racetracks and competitions, awards and scholarships, statues and buildings, and more in his hallowed name. For readers wondering what took her so long—she first began working on the book in 1984, two years after Harry’s shocking death from a brain aneurysm at age 42—the reason becomes clear within a few pages: the weight of racist bigotry and discrimination against the Jeromes was so oppressive, the offenders so numerous, and the wounds so deep that the distance of retrospect required for good memoir writing became that much greater. It must have been too painful to publish until 2023, Valerie Jerome’s eightieth year.
The story Jerome tells in Races was well worth the wait. Bearing witness to her and Harry’s experience of being born and raised in this country, trying to succeed like other Canadians who take their access to opportunity for granted, the book presents a moving account of athletic and life achievement despite constant struggle to be treated with basic dignity. It also serves as a damning indictment of self-congratulatory, back-patting Canadian nationalism, the hypocritical ethos of state-promoted multiculturalism that was becoming mainstream just as Confederation was approaching its highly anticipated centenary.
“For years, the fiction of Canada’s innocence has dominated the discourse,” Jerome notes in the introduction. “Canadians, or at least those who think they know their country’s history, take comfort in the belief that Canada was never this bad for Black people as the United States.”
As Races illustrates with countless grim examples, Canada was an oppressive, unwelcoming place for Black people to live and love during the mid-to-late twentieth century. Adding to the works of authors such as Desmond Cole, Robyn Maynard, Tessa McWatt, and Ian Williams, Jerome presents more than enough evidence of personal and systemic discrimination to shame many offenders still living while providing a fascinating account of how she and Harry supported each other through their various trials, ultimately achieving success.
What makes this narrative so powerful is its weaving of the Jeromes’ public and private lives, revealing how the bigotry Harry and Valerie suffered in the outside world was mirrored by the abuse they suffered at home. Although their father, Harry Senior, emerges as somewhat saint-like and their mother, Elsie, as a mean-spirited witch, both parents come across as complex individuals deeply marked by a racism that tragically affected both their parenting skills and their general outlook on life. (In Elsie’s case, self-loathing Blackness is revealed as one likely cause of her violent temper and cruelty: she tries to pass as White while constantly denigrating her husband and children as losers for not succeeding in a White-dominant society.)
One of the book’s most heartbreaking sub-stories concerns younger brother Barton, whose troubles began at age four when he was hit in the head by a heavy saucepan his mother had flung in the kitchen, intending to hit his father during a violent argument. Barton suffered long-term damage that resulted in frequent seizures and a diagnosis of mental deficiency that led to decades of institutional living and separation from the family.
The Jeromes moved several times in search of better fortunes and living space, from Prince Albert, Saskatchewan to the suburbs of Winnipeg. After landing in North Vancouver and buying a home in Lower Lonsdale, they suffered the full weight of xenophobic racism. While a neighbourhood petition to city hall opposed their presence in the mostly White, working class district, throngs of children threw rocks at Harry, Valerie, and their siblings, screaming the “N” word and obscenities to chase them away from Ridgeway Elementary. By their teen years, when they discovered their talent for running, the sport became as much an escape from their home lives and the torment of bullying schoolmates as a pursuit to enjoy for its own sake.
The fact that excellence in the sport literally ran in the family—their grandfather, John “Army” Howard was Canada’s first Black Olympian—is not an entirely happy coincidence in Jerome’s telling, as tragic aspects of “Army” Howard’s life repeated themselves in succeeding generations. When his relationship with Edith ended in failure and she married a White man, her new relationship was conditional on abandoning her three Black children—one of them Elsie, Harry and Valerie’s mom. (Their grandmother’s new husband later threatened young Harry with a rifle when he stepped on his property to see his grandmother.) Valerie herself ended up marrying a White man who eventually abandoned her and their four-year-old son.
History also repeats itself on the racetrack. En route to the 1912 Games in Stockholm, Jerome reveals, “Army” Howard was separated from his fellow athletes in Montreal and had to stay in a shack near a train station because the hotel would not accept Blacks. His coach and newspapers referred to him as “the coloured boy” despite his being twenty-four, and Olympic officials in Stockholm tried to disqualify him from competition by accusing him of violating his amateur status. When he spoke out against the racism, his coach branded him “outspoken” and “disobedient.”
Decades later, when the siblings competed at the 1960 Rome Olympics, Harry in particular suffered horrendous treatment by newspaper reporters who focused on his race and applied pressure on him that no White athlete had to endure. Whenever he failed to win a medal or compete in a race, they called him a “quitter.” Valerie recalls the most egregious example, when Harry suffered a serious injury that threatened his career. She names some of those who didn’t bother fact-checking their articles before insulting her brother in print—including one Harry was willing to forgive and grant an interview, only to get burned by him.
Although there is undeniable bitterness in these recollections, Valerie Jerome goes a long way in Races to thank friends, colleagues, and even a few journalists who were constant in their support. Her pride is evident in recounting how, once the glory days were done and their racing careers over, Harry finally began receiving the recognition he was due and was named to the Order of Canada. But this is no sibling hagiography either: while praising her brother’s life-long dedication to the noble cause of providing more government support for amateur athletes, Valerie acknowledges his political naïveté and laments how susceptible he was to being used for his celebrity. (In 1975, he shocked and appalled their father, a life-long New Democrat, by campaigning for the Social Credit Party. He had been promised a good job if the Socreds returned to power and was disappointed when they did but no job resulted.)
The author is clear-eyed and persuasive in acknowledging the consequences of multi-generational trauma for her family. If there is a sense of triumph in the telling—satisfaction that, in addition to Harry’s accomplishments, Valerie too ultimately broke through the trauma to become an award-winning educator, a renowned conservation activist and arts advocate, as well as a loving mother unlike her own—the reader cannot help but share it.
It’s no wonder fellow Olympian athletes like Perdita Felicien call Races “a must read for every Canadian.” The book is not only a testament to how one family paved the way for other Black athletes to thrive in this country. It’s also a sobering corrective to myopically Canadian patriotic liberalism, an insular and self-serving world view that tends to brush aside unpleasant reminders of our not-so-progressive past.
Daniel Gawthrop‘s debut novel, Double Karma, was published in 2023 by Cormorant Books and reviewed by the British Columbia Review here. He’s also the author of five nonfiction titles including The Rice Queen Diaries, a memoir about interracial attraction. Visit his website here. [Editor’s note: Daniel Gawthrop has reviewed books by Niloufar-Lily Soltani, Brett Popplewell, Alex Kazemi, Charlotte Gill, Eden Robinson, Tsering Yangzom Lama, and Alan Haig-Brown for BCR.]
The British Columbia Review
Interim Editors, 2023-24: Trevor Marc Hughes (non-fiction), Brett Josef Grubisic (fiction)
Publisher: Richard Mackie
Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line book review and journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board now consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Barry Gough, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. The British Columbia Review was founded in 2016 by Richard Mackie and Alan Twigg.
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