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Sportswriter Morgan Campbell Pulls No Punches in ‘My Fighting Family’
The Toronto journalist explores what it means to grow up as a Black American in Canada through the prism of intergenerational conflict / BY Ashante Infantry / February 9th, 2024
It would have been easy for Morgan Campbell to make his authorial debut with a missive about boxing, baseball, track and field or other athletic pursuits that garnered his expert analysis in the Toronto Star, New York Times and, currently, as a senior contributor for CBC Sports. But in My Fighting Family: Borders and Bloodlines and the Battles That Made Us, the award-winning sports reporter applies his wit, skillful turns of phrase and well-observed details to his own family, with a memoir about internecine battles and the experiences growing up as a Black American in Canada.
Starting in the 1930s, he traces his lineage back to Louisiana, Virginia, Texas, South Carolina and Arkansas, tracks it to Chicago and then across the border to Canada, where he was born in 1976. Breathing life into the genealogy, Campbell examines the generational conflicts that made his bloodline “a fighting family,” which clashed over class, pride and property, and battled external forces for “freedom, sanity, breathing room.” The 1965 union of his parents – Jeanie Jones and Pete Campbell – sparked a Shakespearean feud that even death couldn’t resolve.
The story’s protagonist is Campbell’s irascible maternal grandfather, the respected jazz pianist Claude Jones, who carried 20,000 songs in his head, played with luminaries like Oscar Peterson, Erroll Garner and Ray Brown, but never recorded his own album, and never achieved fame. During a gig in Toronto, Jones fell for the city’s “clean streets and friendly people,” and quickly relocated there with his wife and youngest child in 1966. Other family members followed, including Campbell’s parents in 1969, seeking to raise their children in a safe, integrated environment. They all maintained strong ties to America through sports, music, food and language, along with frequent trips to relatives who remained in Grand Rapids, Mich., or on Chicago’s South Side – in particular, Campbell’s paternal grandmother, Granny Mary, an equally combustible figure who, like Claude, “craved attention and control.”
With his parents’ declaration that they’d only have had one child if they stayed in Chicago, third-born Campbell is jokingly grateful they moved north. More seriously, he doesn’t think he would have fared well in an American “big-city, segregated school system.” By fourth grade, rattled by bullies and marital tensions at home, Campbell was excelling at standardized tests, but constantly getting into fights. His suburban Mississauga school officials arranged for therapy.
“Later, on the side of my hell-raising phase, my mom could point to 1985 and 1986 as a cluster of months that justified the move to Canada,” Campbell writes. “Otherwise, what would have happened to a bad-acting, stone-throwing, karate-kicking Black kid in a place like Chicago. Tough to contemplate, but easy to imagine.”
Fuelled by an aptitude for sports and a cultural inheritance that included unwavering Chicago Bears fandom, his sights were set on an NFL career. But he also loved English and wound up a journalism major and “a bench-warming wide receiver” at Northwestern University, outside Chicago. In 2004, Campbell landed at the Toronto Star, where we were friends and colleagues.
The book illuminates a little-considered immigrant story in a country where Blackness is typically associated with the Caribbean or Africa, or an America many generations removed. “Canada has always functioned as this place of refuge for different groups of Black Americans: Loyalists on the East Coast; Loyalists in Ontario; fugitive slaves in Ontario; the Homesteaders in Saskatchewan and Alberta,” Campbell explained in a video chat from his home in Ajax, Ont. During the period he writes about, Black Americans tended to arrive as railway porters, entertainers, athletes or Vietnam War draft dodgers, enamoured with the “free health care, cheap higher education, and a less deadly strain of racism.”
Though rooted in his Canadian identity, Campbell considers his book “a love letter” to his often-derided heritage. “The messaging you hear from white people and non-American Black people is that Black Americans have no culture.… It is untrue. What Black America gets is a lot of superficial pandering and flattery by way of imitation and appropriation.
“But not a lot of authentic love, because everybody wants to copy the way we dress, the way we speak, the way we dance, the way we play basketball, the way we play piano, bass, six-string guitar, whatever.”
His complicated, grudge-holding grandfather Claude is long deceased, but writing about the elder, who performed six nights weekly in upscale jazz rooms in Chicago and Toronto and found himself at a crossroads when jazz evolved, has softened the grandson who is still fighting to keep his own “career trajectory bending upward” through “the end of newspapers” after 18 years at the Toronto Star.
“For both of us, there’s this kind of reckoning: Where are you going to go from here?,” explained the 47-year-old married father of a young daughter. “Like, with Grandpa, was he going to start playing avant-garde stuff? I left newspapers and found different ways to write because there were different stories I wanted to tell.”
This book is Campbell’s way of making sure his professional legacy will be less ephemeral. “This idea that my grandfather – as much as sometimes I couldn’t stand him, and sometimes I’m not comfortable with the ways in which I’m like him – I do recognize the parallel paths in our careers.”