Sunday, 19 October 2008

The Commonplace Book -- the Contributors

It's been some time since my last post and I still want to continue with the story of my great-grandmother's commonplace book. However, first of all I want to mention a rather unpleasant comment I received on one of my earlier posts, in which I described going back to 5 Holborn Road in Jamaica. The person who left the comment did not identify themselves. Here it is:

"Where are all the black people?! Are you too good for them huh woman!! your despicable you old saggy lady!! "

Apart from the offensive nature of the comment I'm particularly incensed by the suggestion that I'm a racist. What Anonymous doesn't want to admit is that we Jamaicans are a mixture of all races and colours. Surely this is what the Jamaican coat of arms represents!
Out of many, one people ... I myself am a mixture ... Take my father's family for example! His father was a French Jew from Bas-Rhin, Alsace; his mother, though Catholic, was the daughter of a Sephardic Jew whose family, the Rodrigues Da Costas, I have managed to trace back to 1740. On my mother's side I am the product, I am sure, of both slaves and slave-owners, though it has been difficult for me to go back far enough to find the records that document this. Jamaica is home to people from all over the world and of all shades. Those of us whose families have lived there for a long while are the products of slavery, whether we wish to admit it or not. Thus I take exception to the above comment. I write about my family as I know it, based on my research.

Now, back to Sarah Letitia Brown's commonplace book. My great aunt, Susan Saunders Brown, the eldest of Sarah Letitia Brown's children, wrote four love poems in her mother's book. I have not been able to find their derivation, so for all I know they may be original. Here is one, titled " Love and Physic", and in brackets, "Leep[sic] Year", signed SSB, and dated 1.11.80.

Susan married a widower, John Cassis, on October 17th, 1883. John's first wife, Christiana Augusta Breckenridge, had died of cancer in 1880. Another of Susan's poems, also dated 1.11.80, is titled "Sympathy" and I wonder if it was directed to John. Did her commiseration for his loss eventually lead to love and then marriage? He was much older than her, aged 44 at their marriage while she was only 23. John already had a family of five children by his first wife. The eldest, Catherine, was a year older than Susan. Susan and John between them had four children, two of whom died young, and it seems that Susan did not get over the loss of her youngest, Laura, who died at five weeks, in 1891. Susan died in the Lunatic Asylum, now known as Bellevue Hospital, in November 1899. She may well have been suffering from depression as a result of the loss of her youngest child.

Susan and John's second son, John Madison Cassis, emigrated to Toronto, Canada where he married Fanny Stevens, of Todmorden, Ontario. They had seven children. Here is a picture of John in his garden in Toronto, with his next-door neighbour. John is on the left.

In my next post I'll mention a few other contributors to the commonplace book, one of them my grandfather, William Dey Smedmore.


patricia said...

Well, you know how I feel about that comment. Whoever made it is not only rude, but quite frankly ignorant of Jamaican history and culture. Though truth be told, I still get responses from people like, "But you're not black" when I tell them that my mother is Jamaican. It can be tiresome, sometimes, explaining to folks that Jamaica is a wonderful mix of many different shades. Ah well. Glad you took the high road with your response. I don't think I would have been as restrained or diplomatic.

I'm really enjoying the detective work with the Commonplace Book. Keep it up!

Gerry said...

It only makes sense that whoever was cowardly enough to leave such a vile,reprehensible comment would do so anonymously. Best to leave garbage like that ignored.

Mair Hall said...

That was a very sad, unfortunate, and soundly uneducated comment! We Jamaican's shares the rainbows hue of the many complexions of our diverse ancestors. One of the benefits of the internet is that one can create a wonderful journal, such as your's; and every now and again some crank posts their insecurity for all to see.

Thank you for having the courage to share this with all of us.
-Aaron Mair

Dorothy Kew said...

Thanks to all of you for your comments, Patricia, Gerry and Aaron. I did think long and hard about whether or not to mention the comment I received. After all, it's one of the hazards of blogging I guess. Your responses have really cheered me up!

Judith said...

I hope the so-called person who left that truly despicable comment is feeling very foolish and will just take another look at him/herself and at Dorothy's beautiful rainbow family before displaying his/her nasty soul in public again!
That said (whew!) I'm so enjoying the Commonplace Book!

Dorothy Kew said...

Thanks, Judith. I've had a lot of positive comments and emails from those of you who enjoy reading the blog. I doubt Anonymous is still lurking around. This sort of comment is what I call a "drive-by".

Russ Campbell said...

Distasteful comments seem to be one of the prices we must all pay to blog on the Internet. Yours was particularly repulsive because it was very personal in nature. You just have to ignore them.

Keep up the good work—I look forward to your entertaining and informative posts.

Dorothy Kew said...

Hi Russ:

Thanks for your support. Haven't heard from you for ages. How is your research going? I do realize that comments like this are the bane of the Internet. I have been very happy to receive a number of positive responses to my post.

Guy said...

Thank you for the full page photo of Susan's entry. I'm fascinated by their penmanship, an art now lost to most in our age of "word processing". Please give us more!

Poor Susan. I'm inclined to believe that her youngest daughter's death was just "the straw that broke the camel's back". Life for women of her generation must have been very difficult. I can't begin to imagine what it must have been like being a homemaker and rearing a flock of children in the 19th century...

Delishmish said...

People never want to believe that I am Jamaican too (at least my parents are)...but we really are "out of many people, one."

I couldn't be more proud of my heritage. I consider myself an Ambassador of sorts, here in Northern California.

As for ignorant anonymous commenters...


Jacqueline Smith said...

What a horrible and ignorant remark! Dat sumaddy fi go bury dem head inna one dark hole someweh and keep it dey. Chruups.

That said, perhaps you could enable comments moderation, or disable the option to post comments anonymously. The disadvantage is having to manually put on comments, something you might not have the time to do.

I continue to enjoy your research and would want the entire Jamaica to see it, but now I'm having second thoughts.

Best wishes.

Anonymous said...

a passing comment -

I stopped by your blog via jacqueline smith's. I find the results of the research fascinating, and will probably return to read some of the narratives you created around the individuals.

At the same time, I think my short visit has allowed me to gain a different perspective on the comment to which you and the other posters are responding.

I noticed that your response to the anonymous poster was to refer to the notion that "we are all a mixture" as if being Jamaican and of mixed heritage means that someone does and cannot have racist views. That doesn't seem quite logical to me.

While you are rightly defensive against that accusation, the interesting thing to me is that you don't deal at all with the question about the visible absence of people of African descent in bits of the family tree you have pulled together so far. I suspect that has to do with the kind of data that is available through genealogical databases, so I'm not questioning your methodology, motives or decisionmaking.

However, I do know that this issue of tracing one's ancestry is fraught with tensions, given that many of us who are descendants of enslaved persons cannot trace our history because there are few if any records left.

The ability to provide such rich details about one's family history is related to structures of power which have rendered some people more valuable than others, and thus worthy of being recorded as historical subjects. This is the legacy of slavery and colonialism that we as Jamaicans still must live with. Simply put, some kinds of knowledge have been rendered impossible long before we could even apprehend that there was a question to ask.

So, beyond the pithy response that most or all of us can trace our lineage back to slavery etc. etc., there is something to the comment that is worth considering and bearing in mind - not as a deterrent to the project, but just being aware and recognizing the context in which you are working. As a Jamaican, I *know* that there is a politics to unveiling one's family history that is devoid of African-descent persons has been part of how many white Jamaicans legitimize themselves and their claim to Jamaican history. In other words, it is not unfair to say that there is all kinds of ideological work being done through the mapping of the "family history". Again, that's not to say that's what you are doing or intend to do. I certainly can't make such assessments since I am just passing through, and that's certainly not the sense I get from your narrative.

However, it is important to be aware of context, and these issues about access, interpretation and representation which are hardly ever articulated, but felt quite palpably in a society where we are really not "free" to talk about how racism operates in our lives.

walk good,

Long Bench

Arras Memorial

Arras Memorial

Trooper Victor Dey Smedmore

Trooper Victor Dey Smedmore
My uncle Victor