How Desmond Cole wrote a bestselling book about being Black in Canada
The Skin We're In is journalist and activist Desmond Cole's first book, and it explores life in Canada as a Black person. When it was published in February 2020, it became one of the bestselling books in the country.
The Skin We're In looks at one year, 2017, and chronicles Cole's personal journalism, activism and experiences alongside stories that made the headlines across the country, including refugees crossing the Canada-U.S. border in the middle of winter and the death of Somali-Canadian Abdirahman Abdi at the hands of the Ottawa police. CBC Books named Cole a 2020 writer to watch.
Finding the right book to write
"In 2015, I had a piece published with Toronto Life called The Skin I'm In. It was a personal essay about my own experiences with police surveillance and the practice that we now refer to as carding. It did very well.
"After it was published, Penguin Random House was among a few book publishers that reached out to me and asked if I was interested in writing a book. This caught me by surprise because I wasn't planning on doing that. After I signed the book deal, I did feel some pressure. It would take another two years to actually figure out the structure of the book.
I got the idea that I would make my book essentially a calendar and that every month of 2017 would form a chapter of the book.
"The key to that was through a conversation I had with several Black authors — including Dionne Brand — and they were asking me how my writing was going. This was in the summer of 2017. I gave Brand an idea of what kind of a book I was thinking of doing. At that time, I was thinking of taking a much more historical look at Black life and Black existence in Canada.
"She, very bluntly, told me not to do that. She told me that I was doing journalism and activism in the present — and I should write about what I was seeing and experiencing right now. I took that advice. I had an anecdote I wanted to share in the book and she told me to develop it a bit more, include a few more anecdotes and then I would have a complete book. It was a story of me running into somebody at a grocery store. I knew him from years ago because I used to work at the community centre where he played basketball.
"This is the story of a young man — who I call Gerald in the book — who told me the police used to always wait for him and his friends as they left the community centre. They wouldn't let them leave unless they showed identification.
"It got me thinking about larger issues of how surveillance is happening in our schools and our community centres. I got the idea that I would make my book essentially a calendar — and that every month of 2017 would form a chapter of the book."
Underreported and underrepresented
"They say that you should write what you know. And I did that. A lot of times, as a journalist who is trying to make a living, you don't get to dwell on really interesting or important stories because no one will pay you to do that. So writing this book was an opportunity for me to go back to a lot of stories that I was experiencing throughout the year 2017 — and one chapter for 2013 — and to be rigorous about my investigative journalism.
"I knew, for example, that in 2009 a police officer at Toronto's Northern Secondary School — who was stationed there for the School Resource Officer (SRO) program — was in the news because he arrested a Black student inside of the school. I knew that story happened because in 2009 I went to Northern at the time where the students held a walkout for the arrested student. I remember those days very well.
Writing this book was a chance for me to go into deeper detail into the types of stories that often go underreported.
"What I didn't know was that the same police officer who did that had been charged with assaulting somebody four or five years earlier in the parking lot of that same school. I yelled out when I was reading it while researching the book. I couldn't believe it.
"Writing this book was a chance for me to go into deeper detail into the types of stories that often go underreported."
The importance of being present
"I don't like writing about myself. I even had thoughts about completely overhauling the title of this book but it ended up being The Skin We're In as a kind of evolution of my The Skin I'm In essay. This is a work of journalism. I believe in a journalism where the person speaking is present. They are not pretending to tell you this story from the perspective of a camera or a pen or a video. I'm physically there.
I believe in a journalism where the person speaking is present. They are not pretending to tell you this story from the perspective of a camera or a pen or a video. I'm physically there.
"I'm there on the highway when Black Lives Matter blocked the Allen Expressway for Andrew Loku. I'm there on that night when the Toronto District School Board canceled the SRO program because I was sitting in the gallery.
"That was our work. I didn't want to absent myself from that in this book. I always want the reader to remember that I'm telling my story. I was there, but it's not about me personally."
Skin in the game
"I wrote The Skin We're In for Black people first. This book is for those of us who live this every day. This book is validation. It's not that Black people need this book — but I hope that Black people want to see a mainstream and popular book that's about us and for us.
I hope that Black people want to see a mainstream and popular book that's about us and for us.
"But The Skin We're In is also for a broader audience, so long as that audience is coming with genuine interest and curiosity. People who don't believe the Black experience in Canada probably wouldn't read this book anyway. There's no attempt to convince them, argue with them or reach out to them in this book. I don't have time for that.
"This book can be for non-Black people in Canada who understand that there is a struggle for Black liberation in this country — whether they use that language or not. It's for those readers who see demonstrations on the street that are explicitly about Blackness by Black people and are curious and who want to understand. The Skin We're In exists so those who are not Black can better articulate the struggle that they see or hear about — so that they can better understand and contextualize it.
"I had the great privilege and honour of taking the time to find all of these things and put them together for the book."
Desmond Cole's comments have been edited for length and clarity.