Black & White: Search for roots uncovers forgotten family secret

Posted in Articles, Canada, Caribbean/Latin America, History, Judaism, Media Archive, Passing, Religion on 2012-04-15 23:56Z by Steven

Black & White: Search for roots uncovers forgotten family secret

National Post
Toronto, Canada

Sarah Boesveld, General Assignment Writer

About 20 years ago, David Dossett watched his grandfather politely shut down a woman who called to say she was a relative and that their family had come to Canada from Jamaica and that they were black. “That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard,” Mr. Dossett said to his granddad, businessman John B. Sampson, who seemed amused by this idea. Their family — Mr. Dossett’s great-grandfather on his mother’s side — had come to Canada from Scotland in 1907 and settled in Toronto. No one disputed that. But while doing some casual family tree sleuthing online a few years ago, Mr. Dossett, an IT manager and father of four, stumbled upon a tree that looked a lot like his. As it turns out, it belonged to the woman who called his grandfather that day — Jenny Sampson from Illinois. And so began Mr. Dossett’s “obsessive” hunt for a family’s past that had remained a secret for over 100 years. In the end, he discovered his family is not Protestant and Scottish, but Jamaican and Jewish. Not everyone is pleased about the discovery — much of which was broadcast last week on an episode of The Generations Project on Brigham Young University TV. Mr. Dossett spoke with the Post’s Sarah Boesveld from his hometown of Kingston, Ont.:

Q Jenny Sampson had been doing research independently before you began to question your family’s roots and identity. What had she found?

A When I was looking at her family tree, it was describing my family, it was describing me. And the tree said the family was Jewish, that they lived on an estate in Jamaica called Gaza. The name “Gaza” sounds very Jewish, so I’m thinking “Wow.” I contacted the person whose name was on the website — it ended up being her husband — and Jenny emailed back, explained the whole thing — that her family had come to Toronto in 1907, that they came as mulatto Hebrews. When it really sank into me that this was true I started thinking “What are the odds that my family is from Jamaica?” The odds turned out to be pretty good…

Q Why do you think your family kept their heritage a secret even years after they immigrated?

A Deep down inside I think people [in my family] are concerned about having Jewish or black heritage. My mother’s cousin was concerned her father, my great-uncle the decorated war hero [and top-ranked army official] Franklin Augustus Sampson, would be looked down on if it was revealed our family lied about their heritage. But what are they going to do? Yank medals away from people? He’s dead. My grandfather lied about his heritage because he said he was born in Toronto, not Jamaica. A lot of people lied when they enlisted in WWI, lied about their age, lied about their ethnicity. One of my cousins found out many years ago through a blood test that there was either Asian or African blood in her system. When she took the blood test, she went into grandfather’s office, she threw it down on his desk in front of him and said “Explain this.”

Q How did your mother react?

A She doesn’t believe it. She says we’re from Scotland, but doesn’t provide details. She’s going through stages of dementia, but even without that she wouldn’t believe it. Jenny told me her mother is no longer speaking to her. If this had happened maybe 20 years earlier, I could have been a little concerned about it too.

Q Did you feel betrayed at all that your family kept this from you?

A Initially I was, but then I became aware of why this was done. I think what I find most discouraging is the way people were treated when they came to the country, if they weren’t from this white background. We have a past we don’t like to talk about. It’s too bad that Canada wasn’t as open a country as it could have been…

Q You say there are likely thousands of other families out there who may actually be of black heritage despite their families’ white complexions.

A In the late 1800s there was a mass exodus of Jews from Jamaica. The perception was that they were becoming too powerful, so laws were passed to limit what they could own and how much they could acquire. I bet there are a lot of people out there that aren’t searching because they just don’t know. Maybe they just assume they’re from Scotland. Other than myself going to Queen’s University, no one in my family has a kilt, I don’t like bagpipes, I don’t eat oatmeal, I don’t like haggis. Nothing about me would indicate I’m Scottish except for my appearance — I have reddish hair because my grandfather married an Irish woman. They were very pale and I burn quite easily…

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The New Black

Posted in Articles, Canada, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive on 2012-02-04 18:09Z by Steven

The New Black

The National Post
Toronto, Canada
The Afterword: Postings from the literary world

Donna Bailey Nurse

The day after the Giller Awards I had breakfast with a friend at the Four Seasons Hotel in Toronto. The ceremony had been held there the night before and as I savoured my bagel and lox we discussed Esi Edugyan’s thrilling win for Half-Blood Blues.
“She seemed genuinely surprised,” said my friend, who was describing the event, for she had attended the gala and I had not. “She looked gorgeous. Her dress was amazing. Oh look,” she broke off, “there she is!”
I turned in my chair to see Edugyan and her husband, Steven Price, being seated at the table behind me. What good luck. I had been hoping to catch up with her at some point to congratulate her in person. Happily, here she was…

Half-Blood Blues, like Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes, has become a bestseller. Some critics are surprised by the wide appeal of these two books, but it makes sense to me. Black stories are popular because they touch on two concerns close to every human heart: the desire for acceptance, to feel as though we belong; and the desire to be free to be who we are meant to be. Black Canadian stories feel quintessentially Canadian. The early novels of Austin Clarke, for example, started a vigorous discussion of hyphenated identities — the idea that we are either Irish-Canadian or Italian-Canadian or black-Canadian or Asian-Canadian, and that being Canadian means being two things (at least) at once.
As a literature of the diaspora, black Canadian novels are destined to make their mark: They articulate a language for black experience in an ostensibly post-racial world. Currently, African-American writers and black British writers — and black writers practically everywhere — are attempting to express what it means to be black in a world that claims race doesn’t matter. In this, black Canadian writers have been given a huge head start: Canada has always professed colour blindness…

…Bi-racial heritage is emerging as this literature’s dominant theme. Half-Blood Blues, Lawrence Hill’s Any Known Blood and Kameleon Man are all titles that allude to its significance. Even The Polished Hoe concerns a heroine that is black but looks white. Nearly every major character in Half-Blood Blues is mixed race; not only Afro-German Heiro, but also Sid, who is undoubtedly descended from a slave woman and her master. Chip, as it turns out, may possess Native-American blood.
Mixed heritage proves a wonderfully fruitful symbol. It is sometimes used to scrutinize the bi-racial dilemma of being caught between duelling cultures. Or it may address the anxiety fair-skinned blacks may feel about whether or not to pass for white. It can symbolize the struggle of black Canadians to reconcile the African and European aspects of their culture. A turbulent interracial romance may represent the overall challenges of race relations. Bi-racial anxiety and alienation lie at the heart of Half-Blood Blues. Altogether,  the title refers to a song the band records, the characters themselves, and a world where few accept that we are all at least two things at once…

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