In a local tea-shop, award-winning author Jael Richardson reads aloud a quote from Maya Angelou’s popular poem, Still I Rise.
“Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave, I am the dream and the hope of the slave. I rise. I rise. I rise,” she recites in her warm, smooth voice. Looking up, she fixes me with her liquid brown eyes, brushes a bouncy dark ringlet from her face and says, “This is a quote that really resonates with me.”
Her smile is wide. A 35-year-old mother, Richardson has dedicated her life to storytelling and encouraging young people of colour to join the literary field.
“When I was in university,” she says, “I realized that I was the person that my great grandparents had dreamed about. I was the person who was able, for the first time in the history of our family, to live free. Not just free as in not enslaved, but having total choice and freedom of opportunity for my future. It has been a privilege to tell stories and have them published.”
Richardson is the author of the 2012 memoir, The Stone Thrower: A Daughter’s Lesson, a Father’s Life. It charts the struggle of her father, Chuck Ealey, to escape the projects of 1960s Portsmouth to become one of the greatest starting quarterbacks in the Canadian Football League. The memoir won a CBC Bookie award in 2013.
“I knew the politics of the era that he grew up in from textbooks and lectures. I knew his accomplishments from reading in the media. But I knew nothing of Dad’s perspective on his own life. I wanted to write that.” She pauses to compose her words. “It was beautiful to see how my version of his story of blackness could become a piece of art.”
Richardson tells me that in black communities, truths and traditions are passed down in the form of oral stories. Storytelling is an important part of the cultural fabric. Historically, black truths and stories were eclipsed by the words of white writers.
“Europeans have recorded their histories since the beginning.” She leans forward, pressing splayed hands on the table between us. “This is how their truths dominate history. Their tradition has been to put it on paper. It’s true now, right?” Richardson leans back in her chair. “Having black people write their own stories is an important act of challenging the traditional and dominant narratives which are faulty and flawed, missing pieces.” She looks relaxed, but speaks passionately. “That act of recording black stories and putting it on the page is an important one because, at the very least, it has people thinking about what they’ve learned and known growing up.”
“I’m super proud to be African American and to be tied to that history. I talk about it being a history of disadvantages, because it has been. I’m determined to say that it is not going to be a disadvantage to me; it’s going to be my advantage,” she says. “My blackness is going to be the thing to make me unique, it’s going to be the thing to which I give back, it’s going to be the thing that I use to say thank you.”