Author Tags: Afro-Canadian, Fiction
"His was the first black novel to come out of Western Canada and it got passed over." -- Wayde Compton
A longtime resident of Surrey, Truman Green wrote and self-published a semi-autobiographical novel A Credit to Your Race (1973), in which a 15-year-old black porter's son falls in love with, and impregnates, the white girl next door. Set in Surrey, circa 1960, A Credit to Your Race is a disturbing and convincing portrayal of how the full weight of Canadian racism could come to bear on a youthful, interracial couple. "If isolation is a key theme of black B.C. writing," says social historian Wayde Compton, [Green's protagonist] "Billy Robinson is the most fully-drawn expression." Compton says Green was diplomatic in the way he described racism, but his novel was passed over nonetheless.
After rejection of the manuscript by one trendy literary press in eastern Canada, the first edition of 300 copies was published by a fledgling imprint called Simple Thoughts Press. Truman Green has recalled, "The drawing of Billy on the cover of the original edition was done by Phyllis Greenwood, a Vancouver artist who, at the time, was my very close friend. Phyllis brought the story to the attention of her friend, Reg Rygus, who had obtained a federal grant under a program called Opportunities for Youth to begin a small publishing venture which he called Simple Thoughts Press. All of the physical work of typing, printing, binding and collating was done by Phyllis, Reg, and his brother Ron Rygus, as well as Phyllis' twin girls, Alexis and Aleteia, who were eight years old at the time.
"The costs of publishing were met by the government grant administered by Reg Rygus and by the voluntary assistance of my friends. I wasn't out of pocket a single penny, but without more than a little help from my friendsâ€”particularly Phyllis Greenwoodâ€”the so-called 'self'-published edition would have never happened. It's not really true that the book was 'self-published,' which implies that the author took on and completed the many tasks of publishing, as I really had very little to do with the publishing effort, besides helping to collate the pages in a short session at a space that had been rented by Reg Rygus for his publishing venture."
Truman Green graduated from UBC in 1968 with a BA in English literature and American history. His more recent publication credits include a creative non-fiction story, â€œJason Loves Glory,â€ published in Kiss Machine, and science-related articles in Australia's New Dawn Magazine.
[BCBW 2011] "Fiction" "Afro-Canadian"
A Credit to Your Race
from BC BookWorld
BY EVELYN C. WHITE
A Credit To Your Race by Truman Green
(Anvil Press $18)
Acclaimed Canadian director Norman Jewison explored U.S. race relations in his 1967 release In the Heat of the Night. The Oscar-winning film features Sidney Poitier as a Philadelphia homicide detective who reluctantly takes the lead in a backwoods Mississippi murder investigation.
In a now legendary scene, Poitier interrogates a white plantation owner who, enraged by his “effrontery,” slaps him in the face. Poitier returns the slap, a bold move (even for the movies) during an era when racist whites routinely killed blacks with impunity.
Truman Green delivers similarly charged moments in A Credit to Your Race. First published in 1973, the novel has been reissued as part of the Vancouver 125 Books Legacy Project. In celebration of the city’s 125th anniversary last year, the program republished ten classic titles.
Set in Surrey, circa 1960, A Credit … chronicles a romance between narrator Billy Robinson, a 15-year-old black youth and Mary Baker, his 14-year-old white neighbour. Their liaison draws the wrath of family members, teachers and schoolmates who, for various reasons, disapprove of interracial relationships. The most vocal opponent of the couple’s union is Mary’s father, a farmer in what was, fifty years ago, a rural community on the outskirts of Vancouver.
“One day out in the hayloft at the back of her place, Mary said she was starting to hate her father,” the author writes. “Apparently he didn’t have anything against me personally, but he had seen it happen too many times when he was in the army overseas. … Too many coloured soldiers (or whatever he called them) got white girls pregnant and then refused to marry them. … These Canadian men of colour just up and left thousands of poor little white girls knocked up all over the world.”
Billy responds with a cheeky sarcasm that courses throughout the novel and serves to endear the narrator to the reader: “‘But Mary … there’s only about one coloured solider in the whole Canadian army. Surely he couldn’t be responsible for all this.’”
At a time when many adolescents are obsessed with computer games, music videos and their ubiquitous cell phones, Green gives voice to a period during which roller skating rinks, ice cream parlors and drive-in movies were central to teenage life. Indeed, Billy revels in an activity that is likely to surprise readers who’ve been bombarded with media images of young black men festooned in baggy pants, gaudy jewelry and backward baseball caps. The protagonist of A Credit … is better likened to the late country singer Wilf Carter than to the Toronto rap star Drake.
Here, Billy rides his bicycle to Mary’s house (she’s sitting on the front steps reading a newspaper!), to remind her of their upcoming date: “You know we’re going square dancing. … Square dancing was the best … we’d smile at the lyrics and ‘do-si-do,’ as they say, and everything that went with that.”
In a deft plot move early in the text, Green introduces an element that raises suspense and fuels the flames of the novel’s already blistering racial tension. With Mary’s parents away on holiday, the teens enjoy more time in the hayloft.
“Those two weeks were probably the best of my entire life,” Green writes. “Besides just feeling like a normal human being and not having to hide around corners like a burglar … we did all kinds of things.”
“That last night before the Bakers got back … knowing the … stupid sneaking-around would soon be starting up … put us in a kind of desperate mood,” the author continues. “Where we’d always stop and go home, something happened that night and we ended up going a lot further than we’d intended.”
Green employs skilled pacing and pointed sub-plots –“Scoutmaster O’Reilly wanted to see me box because he had some idea that I’d be a natural” -- to keep readers enthralled as the nerve-wracked adolescents await the result of their unintended splendour. This, before pregnancy test kits became readily available at any pharmacy (to say nothing of online outlets).
“Mary seemed to love me, all right,” Green writes. “She even said we could run away and elope … if her dad threatened me. But at least I wasn’t that dumb. … Where’s a fifteen-year-old coloured boy and a fourteen-year-old white girl going to hide?”
Feeling cornered on every front, Billy explodes when Mary, reiterating “wisdom” gleaned from her father, announces that mixed-race children are “a lot dumber than all white or all coloured … and that a lot of them are deformed.”
‘ “ You know Mary, your dad’s a fucking idiot,’” Billy asserts.
As for Mary’s mom, she one day summons Billy to her Oldsmobile where she shares a personal saga that prompts another plot twist. “I thought of the word, dilemma … and that was what Mrs. Baker was,” Green writes. “A dilemma.”
A Credit To Your Race is enhanced by a closing interview with Truman Green that details the evolution of the novel and its intriguing publication history. Green recalls a 1970s-era publisher who, disaffected with his narrative style, had rejected the manuscript (“He constantly tells the reader how he feels”).
“I feel that Billy’s thoughts, expressed directly to the reader, are the most interesting and touching parts of the book,” notes Green, a UBC graduate and now retired contractor who lives in Surrey. “I remember thinking that perhaps the publisher should reread Anne Frank’s diary or The Catcher in the Rye.”
Evelyn C. White is the author of Every Goodbye Ain’t Gone: A Photo Narrative of Black Heritage on Salt Spring Island.