My Fighting Family: Borders and Bloodlines and the Battles That Made Us by Morgan Campbell.

Northern cities like Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, New York City, and Philadelphia have often represented opportunities for Black folks to reboot their lives amid racism in Southern states. Between 1910 and 1970, some of those families took the Great Migration one step further by uprooting their families and moving to Canada. 

Black families left behind a world they knew, which by all accounts was terrible thanks to systemic racism, for the unknown, which says all one needs to know regarding the state of race relations in post-Reconstruction America. 

These types of family stories aren’t told in a similar frequency within the Black diaspora. Black folks went to Canada by any mode of transportation possible— car, train, plane, and hitchhiking—to look for work and treatment they were convinced they wouldn’t get in the United States.

Anyone who is a part of a large extended family will most likely nod in agreement or at least be triggered when reading Canadian award-winning sportswriter Morgan Campbell’s book, My Fighting Family: Borders and Bloodlines and the Battles That Made Us.

Campbell’s maternal grandfather was a 1960s Chicago jazz musician, Claude Jones, who took the road less traveled by moving his family out of the country. This was a decision that has had a staunch effect on his descendants for decades to come. Campbell and his family witnessed how racism takes an enormous toll on Black folks in multiple ways—in the States and Canada.

Campbell appears to have been immersed in the Black South Side of Chicago experience despite not being a full-time Chicagoan. He and his family came back from Canada to visit frequently. He would attend Jack and Jill parties at the South Shore Cultural Center (longtime South Shore residents still call it “the country club”), make several pilgrimages to Lem’s Bar B-Q, a well-known barbeque eatery, recognize the smell surrounding the vicinity of the Jays Potato Chip factory at 99th Street and Cottage Grove Avenue, and he hit up 87th Street storefronts to purchase “Short Sets” or clothing with matching patterns.

In his book, Campbell, a longtime Toronto Star reporter, shrewdly recounts stories involving family squabbles, heists, sexism, mob hits (possibly in jest), grudges, racism, fistfights, and sneak dissing in a vivid and emphatic fashion that would make the Berzatto clan of the Hulu Chicago-based series “The Bear” squirm and run for cover.

Where the Mayweathers traded punches for a living, the Jones Campbell specialty was the Family Fight, where a perceived slight ignites an all-out, sides-choosing rumble that splits kin into bitter factions before settling into a cold war lasting years, sometimes outliving its participants. 

There was always somebody to set them off. 

Like when my sister Courtney got into it with our uncle Jeff’s father-in-law over rent money. The old man was the landlord, a lax record-keeper who preferred that his tenants pay in cash. Courtney said she paid him on time every month. He said he couldn’t find the money and accused Courtney of stiffing him. They could have worked it out as adults, but somebody jumped in on the father-in-law’s side, concerned the conflict would cost the family a white person’s esteem. My mom and I had to back Courtney, and we all said stuff we had to apologize for later. Barack Obama was a state senator from Chicago when that fight started; he was finishing his first campaign for president when it ended.

As I read My Fighting Family, I was reminded of when I met Campbell in 2014 during a Medill reception that took place during the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) national conference in Boston.

I mentioned that I’m from Chicago. He quizzed me to see if I really was from the city proper not a suburb. It turns out that both our families have deep roots in South Shore. Over time, I continue to appreciate Campbell’s attention to detail, and that type of minutia is a major factor in My Fighting Family. 

Campbell sat down with the Weekly to discuss My Fighting Family, as well as his family’s complicated Bears fandom, family feuds, sussing out tall tales, the differences between how racism manifests itself in the United States as opposed to Canada, and, perhaps most importantly, how to make sense of it all. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Do you remember the conversation we had when we first met? I’m asking because in the book’s prologue you discussed meeting a woman who asked about your heritage during the commute back and forth between Detroit and Windsor [Canada]. I think you grilled me in a similar way [laughs]. 

When someone says they’re from Chicago and I say what part, they say Waukegan, then I say, “You’re not from Chicago.” I’m personally not from Chicago, but I’m the son of two hardcore Chicagoans. It’s fascinating what you can learn about people and where they’re from based on the answer to that question. When that woman was doing that to me in Windsor, Ontario, I understood why. In Southwest Ontario, there are all these Black families and a lot of them have surnames that keep coming up. I’m sure when people read the book and see the name “Bonner,” they’ll say, “I know his folks.” If I didn’t keep asking you what neighborhood in Chicago you’re from, I would not have known that you’re right down the street. I wrote the book to be able to use my family as a framework for those kinds of conversations and maybe inspire those other types of conversations with other people. 

What are some of your first memories of visiting the South Side? 

My early memories of Chicago are catching lightning bugs, my grandmother’s house on Lafayette [Avenue], my aunt’s house on Langley [Avenue]; the smell of the Jays Potato Chip factory; could smell the grease and the salt from the highway. Family reunions in Abbott Park. Also sleeping on the floor of my Aunt Edith’s living room with fans [on] because it was hot in the summer and they didn’t open windows because they didn’t want people to break in.

What were conversations like when you told the family that you were writing a book about some of the feuds and stories you witnessed and heard about growing up? 

I didn’t consult my family too much. You’re going to wind up with everybody trying to tell you to write the story that they would write. That’s not a good way to write any story at all. [My Fighting Family] is not a list of grievances because no one’s gonna read thatthat’s not a compelling story. So the trick was really getting inside the fights where something changes. Stories have the beginning, the middle, and something changes for the characters, the narrator, and supporting characters. All kinds of people will read [My Fighting Family] and say: my family’s experience wasn’t exactly like this, but I see it reflected. 

And what about fact-checking the incidents that took place before you were born? 

For example, [the part in the book] where the mafia enforcer offers to kill the neighbors, when my grandfather would tell that story, he would just say, “Well, I was playing downtown and this mob guy came up and started talking to me offering to kill the neighbors.” For my grandfather, that story was all about the punchline, and it didn’t necessarily matter. When I ran that story by my mom, she said that it wasn’t just a mob guy. That was Marshall Caifano (a member of the Chicago Outfit). I looked up Marshall Caifano. And so, that detail unlocks a whole new level of richness to that episode. Also, my great-grandparents basically sacrificing their daughter’s future by withdrawing her from junior college so they could take her tuition money and invest in [Joneses] piano lessons. In my family, that story is well known and it’s basically told as a story of sexism. But then my mom mentioned that my grandfather was born en caul (when a baby is born in the encased amniotic membrane). In the old time, if you were born like that, you’re special; you’re blessed with this special thing… And so I’ve lined those details and it looks to me now that this story isn’t just about sexism. The story is about two people from the old country and their beliefs.

Can you explain the gist of the conversations your parents were having when they realized that Canada has issues with race relations like the Unites States does? Also, in the book you discussed your reaction to a teacher showing the Ku Klux Klan propaganda film, “The Birth of a Nation,” in one of your classes at school and your fight with a classmate who called you a “n—-r.” 

Any place in Canada where Black people have lived for a long time—Southwest Ontario and Nova Scotia—there is a long and well documented history of anti-Black racism against those folks. Black Americans looking at Canada don’t necessarily know that going in. And so, for my grandparents when they first made the move, the thing they noticed was Toronto was not segregated the way Chicago was. Black Chicago has to factor in race and racism and how the city’s built-in segregation affects the decisions you’re going to make about where you’re going to live, where you think you might want to live, and where you can realistically expect to live. My parents were realistic with [me and my sisters] about race and what we might encounter in Canada. 

Chicagoans of a certain generation fondly remember the 1985 season as the Bears won Super Bowl XXespecially how the team dominated from start to finish. How did your parents’ Bears fandom have an effect on the family? Bears fandom is something most Chicagoans near and far no matter the race, economics, and political beliefs tend to agree upon.

My mom is from 118th and Halsted and she followed her parents to Canada. In a lot of ways she adapted to Canada. My dad is a transplanted Chicagoan. Put him in Canada and he just kept living as the guy from 95th Street. They’re both hardcore Chicagoans… They had never really seen a winning Bears team, [so] for them to finally see their team start making noise was a huge deal since we lived across the border from Buffalo; we lived in Mississauga [Ontario, Canada] just west of Toronto. It’s also the same time I’m aware that my parents’ marriage is falling apart. The Bears, on one hand, gave our family this gravitational center and gave my parents a reason and an excuse to spend some time together. But it was a respite from the mess their marriage had become at that point. But not long after that Super Bowl comes the separation. And looking back at the Bears, it was the thing that held us together for those last four or five months. 

What are some of the lessons learned growing up that you may pass on to your daughter? 

In terms of being a husband, I try not to pass on what I learned from my dad about a husband because he was not a very good husband. But he was not as bad of a husband as his dad; my dad did the best he could given the role models he had. So a lot of it is trying to carve out a path as a father and a husband. My dad did the best he could. He was very dedicated to my sisters and I; always made time for us… Now we live in an era where it’s okay for men not to be too proud to ask for help for ourselves, to humble ourselves and ask for guidance on ways to do it better than our dads did it and their dads did it. 

What was it like to discover your grandfather’s music and a lot of other things about him? 

As you read the book, a lot of people in my family had very real reasons to dislike him. He enjoyed starting these family fights or jumping into fights just to flex and just to feel like he won a family fight. But no matter how you felt about him, again, if you liked the life you have in Canada, he was the one that put Canada on people’s radar. The only reason that happened is because he was a musician… it’s a really difficult process, but it’s a necessary process, of loving people you don’t necessarily like.

Anything else you’d like to add? 

It was really important for me to write this love letter to Black America. When I look at how the rest of the world and every other ethnic group in the world looks at Black America, what I see is a lot of flattery via imitation. There is no other culture in the history of this planet that has been as pervasive as Black American intellectualism. It’s the only one that has been this influential that has traveled as far and wide not at gunpoint. I want to show some authentic heartfelt appreciative bone-deep love for Black America and that’s one aspect that I hope comes through to the reader. Some people will get it and then some people won’t get it because they still think Black Americans don’t have any culture. But at the same time, I’m not talking to them. I’m talking to people who get it.

Morgan Campbell. My Fighting Family: Borders and Bloodlines and the Battles That Made Us. 318 pages. McClelland & Stewart, 2024. $26 Hardcover.

✶ ✶ ✶ ✶

Evan F. Moore is an award-winning writer, author, and DePaul University journalism adjunct instructor. He is a third-generation South Shore homeowner.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *