Morgan Campbell examines legacies and bloodlines in his memoir, My Fighting Family

My Fighting Family is a memoir by Morgan Campbell. (Penguin Random House Canada, CBC)

The Next Chapter15:42Borders, battles and bloodlines: sports journalist Morgan Campbell talks My Fighting Family

In his day job, Morgan Campbell covers the sports beat — which includes documenting how sports intersect with race, culture, politics and business. But he shifts focus from the playing field to the personal in his new memoir My Fighting Family.

In his memoir, My Fighting Family, Campbell shares the complex familial dynamics, as well as historical influences, which have since shaped his understanding of himself as a husband, a father and a Black Canadian-American.

My Fighting Family is a detailed history of one family’s battles across the generations and reckons with what it means being a Black Canadian with strong American roots. Sports journalist and writer Morgan Campbell traces his family’s roots in the rural American south to their eventual cross-border split and the grudges and squabbles along the way.

From the south side of Chicago in the 1930s to the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War and Morgan’s life dealing with the racial tensions in Canada — My Fighting Family is about journeying to find clarity in conflict.

Campbell is a journalist and a senior contributor at CBC Sports. He was a sports writer at the Toronto Star for over 18 years. His work highlights where sports intersects with off-the-field issues like race, culture, politics and business. His memoir My Fighting Family is his first book.

Campbell spoke with The Next Chapter‘s Ali Hassan about the influence his family’s legacy has had on his life and writing today.

Two formidable forces shape your family dynamics. Claude Jones is your maternal grandfather and then Mary Jane Gibbs is your paternal grandmother — you call her Granny Mary. What did Claude Jones and Granny Mary think of each other?

Claude Jones and Mary Jane Gibbs, they went to high school together [on the] far South side of Chicago. They might have known each other even before that because my mom’s family and my dad’s family all went to the same church, St. James AME, which is right down the street from where my dad grew up.

My grandfather, Claude, thought of the Gibbs’s as a little bit country and backwards, whereas she thought of the Joneses as stuck up because they lived in a white neighborhood but the white neighborhood they lived in was a working class white neighborhood. It was just the fact that my great grandfather got a job at a lumberyard in the neighborhood and the owner of the lumberyard also rented houses to employees and so that was where they lived. But this false idea that they came from different social classes was part of it and there’s also just their personalities, because they’re very much the same. They’re both people that loved attention, they loved control, neither of them really knew what to make of someone who wanted to do something other than what Claude or Mary thought they should do. Two people like that were never going to mix. And so naturally, all these years later, her first son and his first daughter wind up getting married.

Two people like that were never going to mix. And so naturally, all these years later, her first son and his first daughter wind up getting married.– Morgan Campbell

Let me ask you more about Granny Mary. You paint a pretty layered portrait of her in this memoir. Who is she to you? 

So that’s my dad’s mom. Her husband died — my dad’s dad. He was hit by a car in Chicago a few years before I was born. I never knew my dad’s dad so, in terms of my dad having parents, she was it. When you’re little you don’t really realize what makes an adult tick or what about one adult would turn off other adults, right? But you get into your teenage years and you see it — Granny Mary was a complex person, [she] liked to give and to help but with conditions. One time my dad got his car stolen and she helped him with the down payment on his next car and she would just remind him of it in ways that she tried to present like a joke, but it was not a joke. 

She went through a lot, right? She was a teenage mother, she was abused — her husband used to beat her up almost every weekend. So there’s a lot going on with her in a lot of different things in addition to just her personality that made her the way she was, made her as difficult as she was. 

Your grandfather, Claude Jones, on your maternal side, was also a complex, multifaceted guy. They both love to be the centre of attention — in Claude’s case, he was often professionally at the centre of attention. He was a talented jazz pianist and the mainstay of Chicago clubs. How would you describe his influence on your life?

My grandfather’s extremely talented, very stubborn, he was actually not going to come to Toronto and my grandmother had to talk him into coming here just to take a gig one time to see if he would like it. He wound up liking it and wound up moving here that same year, 1966. So in some ways I owe him everything in the sense that my parents weren’t going to have more than one kid if they had stayed in the U.S. If they stayed in Chicago, they were going to have one kid and just pour all their resources into that one kid because it’s so much more expensive to raise a kid down there.

Him coming to Canada is what made the rest of my family start seeing Canada as an option. And that’s the way he would tell the story, the way that puts himself at the centre: he’s the pioneer and he’s the person again that everybody owes something to. 

[You are] both a Jones and a Campbell by blood. How does that shape your reality that you’re both those things?

One of the undercurrents in this book is this prospect of reconciling disparate identities because people do like for you to choose. Same reason they ask, “Where are you from, what’s your last name?”

They want you to choose and so I’m a dual citizen. I’m Canadian and American and people ask me, “Are you Canadian or American?” I’ll say, “Yeah, I’m Canadian and American. I’m a Campbell, I’m a Jones and that’s what makes my sisters and I different from everyone else. When the two families don’t get along, sometimes it’s tough to find the freedom and the leeway and the personal sense of security to make that conclusion.

That’s why this is a journey and not just something that you wake up feeling, ’cause as you grow up, you see the two sides of your family feuding and you start to learn what’s at stake.

As you start to think about belonging and identity, you look for a weapon against anyone who wanted to minimize you and you discover The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin. Tell me what that book meant to you. 

High school at the Woodlands School in Mississauga, Ont., we actually had a decent number of Black kids. Back then it was frustrating periodically getting cross examined by some other Black kids whose parents are from the Caribbean, who could not make sense of the fact that my folks were not from there too.

Now, as a grown up, I don’t hold it against anybody because all of us were Canadian and Black with some other cultural identity too trying to force these identities to coexist. In our brains, Canadianess and Blackness don’t really go together, we’re trying to make it work. 

In our brains, Canadianess and Blackness don’t really go together, we’re trying to make it work.– Morgan Campbell

I would get cross examined again: Where are your parents from? Where are their parents from? Where are their parents from? What do you mean they’re not from an island?

So when I started reading that really started deepening this connection I had to being Black American. It’s not just when people would treat me like I was this outlier, it let me know that I was not this outlier. There’s this big group of people in this big body of work, in these fascinating stories and I come from that wellspring. 

A part of the book that’s also quite emotional, or it certainly was for me, talking about when you were in high school and your dad finds out he has advanced cancer and it has spread. What was that year after the cancer diagnosis like for your family and yourself?

My dad did a really good job of disguising the extent to which this liver cancer — because that’s where it metastasized to — but the extent to which it was really beating him up but you wouldn’t have been able to tell. So when he was on chemotherapy, he’d be really hungry all the time, you could see the chemical in his veins — it’s black. His hair would fall out but then when they’d cycle off of it, his hair would grow back.

I sort of wish I had a better idea of what was actually happening in the sense that he’s telling us he’s gonna live another ten, 12, 15 years, but most people in his position … his actual diagnosis was six months from September of ’93. In some ways, I wish I had clued in earlier to the urgency of it, but at the same time I don’t know how I would have been able to focus on that year of school with that sort of expiration date printed across my dad’s forehead. 

How does your relationship with Granny Mary change when your father dies? 

For a lot of Black Americans, a synonym for funeral is homegoing. The last week of my father’s life, my Granny Mary stayed in his apartment while he was in the hospital. After he died, obviously she was still in his apartment until the day after his homegoing and there is a chapter in this book, and I’m going to leave it at this, called “The Homegoing Heist.”

So I’ll let you guys read the chapter and find out what the homegoing heist is all about.

You are a husband, you are a father. How does this legacy of your family influence the way you approach your roles as a husband and a father? 

Yeah, a lot of it is not even big pictures, small pictures just day-to-day, you know? My dad wasn’t a perfect parent, but he was a very good parent. I don’t have any complaints about the way either of my parents raised us. My parents gave me examples to follow in terms of how to be a parent.

My dad also gave me examples to avoid in terms of how not to be a husband but he did the best he could given who his role model was. A lot of the reason I wrote this book is I just wanted to see how good I was. Could I not just write a book, but write a good book? Could I write a book that endures? 

I wanted to leave behind more than that, I didn’t want to be this playground legend of sports writing.– Morgan Campbell

My mom’s dad was a musician for almost 50 years. He worked with a lot of well known people, but he did not leave behind a library of music so there are certain songs that he’s on, well-known songs that you listen to, but you don’t know that Claude Jones is on them unless you know Claude Jones personally.

I wanted to leave behind more than that, I didn’t want to be this playground legend of sports writing. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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