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Emerging Writer Series
Every two weeks or so I am publishing an essay from an emerging writer. This week, “Heritage Eclipsed” by Zabe Bent. Zabe is a Jamaica-born New Yorker based in Atlanta. She works as a city planner focused on safe, sustainable street design and transportation policy. She is currently working on a debut novel inspired by her grandmother's experience in migration.
We came to the U.S. with no heirlooms save our stories, and they have only two states: tightly held or fantastically bold. Mum agreed to help me draw out these stories when I finally began to chronicle our heritage. She was thrilled that one of her two felt affinity to the family she holds dear.
Then one day, during a family visit, my light-skinned, freckled-faced, wooly-haired mum announced: Aunt Pearl says her grandfather died in a gas chamber.
You must understand that while I am a New Yorker, I am most obviously, most proudly Black and Jamaican. Within the multitudes, Akan or perhaps Fulani. Yoruba or maybe Igbo. Kongo or rather Bantu. Scottish and Irish, English, Welsh, French, Portuguese. Probably Taino or Arawak, and even more still. This is often the lot of Caribbean peoples, descendants of the Middle Passage, the crossroads of four continents, where old and new worlds collide in once horrible, now kaleidoscopic ways. Many come from peoples who are marginalized who have fled who were stolen who were hunted who were sickened to near extinction. When Mum placed us among the survivors of yet another genocide, I thought: If we carry racial trauma in our bones, I am fucked.
Mum and I are enjoying tea, PG Tips with the condensed milk I add only when she is round. The windows are open wide in my brother Wade's home, with a soft breeze keeping the mosquitoes quiet on a humid Minneapolis summer day.
“In a gas chamber in Germany, Mum?" I ask, "As in, the Holocaust?”
"I suppose so."
The possibility breeds tiny flutters in my belly. It is a musty, weary, anxious feeling that cannot be applied to the hope and vibrancy of butterflies. Mum’s Judaism always had a name, Grandpa Charlie, so I’ve always known that the blood flows through my veins just as surely as this kink crowns my head. We were told “Grandpa Charlie was a Jew from Israel.” But he was born before Israel was anything other than a Zionist notion. I’d just never done the math as a schoolgirl. Grownups say things and you don’t question them. Our elders might have said this to clarify that Charlie’s culture aligned with that of the Torah rather than of Ras Tafari. Or maybe to recall Charlie’s whiteness and the status that might have carried in colonial Jamaica. Or maybe they simply trusted tall tales too.
Legend says that Jamaica has more churches per square kilometer than any other country. So, it is not lost on me that when I first began to research my West African ancestors, European forebears, and Jewish family, I boarded a plane alongside Mennonite missionaries bound for an island of Adventists, Catholics, Pentecosts, Baptists, Anglicans, Rastafarians, Witnesses, and much more. At the Mormon Center on Constant Spring, a woman with thick braided hair, smooth ebony skin, and a genuine smile led me through the search process. We know a good bit about the Europeans, less about our perhaps Indigenous grandmother, but the Africans are largely nameless. Even in Jamaica, this place that many revere as a post-colonial haven for Black people, colonial influence lingers. Emancipation era records of Black folk are thin. Prior to this age, our ancestors—our family—are gendered, aged but often unnamed totals, more likely noted as chattel, found alongside goat, cow, and hog in plantation and church ledgers alike.
The Mormon attendant shared possible avenues to pursue Dad’s British lineage. She suggested asking people in New York about his West African roots. “They have more resources in that direction,” she'd said, before trying to connect the lines of Sephardic heritage dating back in several waves from Emancipation to the Inquisition. Jamaican Jews are known, to us at least, and she jots down a few names to add to those familiar from childhood. Then I turned back to Mum's family and found our double great grandma on a steamship from Sussex, England. At a time when women were little more than accessories, Jane Cowey appears alone on the manifest, rather than as John Solomon and wife. Charlie’s birth record appears in Jamaica a short time later—really just not a Jew from Israel. But the story is more complex, because John appears as father not only to Charlie but to Edwin, who we thought to be an uncle. It was all a jumble.
“Your mother doesn’ know any more?” the attendant asked. “No,” I said, and her warm expression conveyed sympathy, not the shame I felt at knowing so very little about who we were and the trials we faced. It was then that the jittery feeling in my belly began to seem like moths more than butterflies, eclipse more than kaleidoscope.
At a neighboring terminal, a tall, white man with a look and accent straight out of Toronto flashed a compassionate smile. It was an open room, and stories were shared plainly for all to hear. He confirmed that he was in fact Canadian, from a largely Greek household. Unlike me, he’d only recently discovered his Jewish roots. Decades of fear kept his father from sharing his true starting point: Hungary, not Greece, revealed in deathbed whispers only months prior. He, too, was looking for truth, for knowledge of the small town his father once called home, for long lost cousins, for any living connection at all.
The attendant and I were glad, perhaps thrilled for him, that there was anything to find. Both he and she offered kind words as I described my meager listings—names and dates, no firm record of John Solomon in Jamaica. Digitized records are old and difficult to read. The attendant noted that the young Elders charged with data entry were not accustomed to cursive, especially not the whorls and flourish of 19th and 20th century recordkeepers. That local laborers and even gentry typically waited weeks and months and more to register their names at the post office. Family might be logged under a middle name, a different spelling, a different year. There was a document suggesting John had other children, back in England, at a different time. My mind still spins at this possibility: John in someone else's family tree, someone white, someone European, hopefully still practicing to this day rather than another connection to victims of the Holocaust.
Months later in Wade’s home, that visit to the Mormon Center is how I know that Mum's revelation does not track. The dates and details simply do not add up.
As she unfolds her news, I imagine John Solomon, first in a plot near the family home in St Elizabeth, Jamaica, then somewhere in southern England, with relations we’ve never come to know, then in Germany, among the ashes of genocide.
I run sums in my head, calculating how old Grandpa Charlie would have been, how old his father would have been, when he was gassed. Gassed. He should have been in Jamaica when the Holocaust began, because young Charlie was. I’d thought about the complex relationship between White Jewish Grandpa Charlie and Black Indigenous Granny Janie. I’d even imagined some measure of calm and love in that marriage, because in those times, who would risk that sort of union but for love? This emerging new thought sunk all hope for ease in their childhoods or in their marriage. Still, logic brain says that John Solomon’s fate is implausible. By even the early days of the Holocaust, Grandpa Charlie’s father would have been over 80 years old.
These words must have spilled out, because Mum suggests a theory as she sips her tea: “Well-old, yes. Must be why they sent him to the chamber.” She might as well be describing any old history book name.
“You don’t find this disturbing, Mum?”
Her body does not shift. There’s no eyewater perched to fall, no twitch in her mouthcorner. One palm comes up, long fingers splay, and half her body shrugs.
“What I must seh? I didn know Charlie, and Aunt Pearl says she can’t remember anything else. She said her grandmother had blond hair and her grandfather died in Germany.” Mum returns to her tea, though I’m sure mine has gone cold. She hadn’t known him?
Each of my own grandfathers was known to us through visits counted on one hand. They lived far from us as we grew, accessible only through overwater flights and full-day drives. Mum was never more than two big-island parishes away from Grandpa Charlie. He died when she was a teen, yet she doesn’t know firsthand how he looked or sounded. Whether he hugged her cousins with warmth or steel. Not what he liked to eat or how he wore his hat. Despite the pale skin and freckles Mum got from her father, she was the likkle Black pickney. She never inherited tall hair or green eyes or good status from her undereducated mother, not like some of her cousins. Still we maintain affinity. Is family.
Mum shifts the papers tucked into her pink vinyl datebook and says, “they were ejected from their sheep farm in Scotland. That’s what they did back then. Everybody knew bout it. They sent the women to the colonies and the men to Germany.”
To Germany. Not "to a gas chamber", not "to die."
The expropriated Scottish farm is helpful historical context, too early for John and Jane, instead aligning to the era when Germany experimented on the Herero and Nama in modern day Namibia. But the euphemistic obfuscation of our own family’s horror set the wings in my belly aflutter. We mangle, twist and wrangle our stories, secret them into a trunk, fling it to the seas, drowning it well-deep, such that it breeches only with suffering or nurturing. I try to focus on this last notion, to sooth the agony of an awful truth, though I fear the lock of our particular trunk is damaged and worried to the point of maim. I wonder how many truths we have lost to pain or shame or aspiration, how many linkages are buried and calcified, such that we will never again know who we have been and how we connect to each other, to others like us, to a whole.
I imagine the English removing John and Jane from their land, this property stolen from my forebears, just like so many European Jews. Family ripped from their homes and ejected from everything they knew and held dear, then separated. One sent to a life in looted and colonized lands with people outside her faith, the other sent to his death. I want to find solace that, at least Jane was left alive, that she was permitted to flee, that we wouldn’t be here otherwise. Instead I cannot shake thoughts of West African forebears who were not afforded even these terrible, inadequate graces.
Mum tries to pull my attention to a cousin, to complete another branch of our tree. Her name is Lattibeaudierre, a daughter of labourers like my grandmother, our connection to the Kongo and to the French. This cousin became a labor activist. Mum has found her in D.C. now and wants me to connect.
"Mum,” I say, skimming the worn paper, allowing my fingers to trace her margin notes, “I would like to know this cousin, but I can’t focus on her right right now. You can understand why, yes?” My voice is low. Mum and I debate family truths often. It pains me to hoard stories, to cloud the clarity and purpose they might bring. She explains our relations, wanting to ensure I don't grudge them up. She wants me to soften judgment, to understand the ever-present racism and classism of growing a British subject. Maybe she thinks I somehow miss the ways colonial rule forced fighting and scraping for survival and status. Maybe she forgets that I was born to her in this same place not so long after independence, spent many childhood summers there, and returned for awhile as a young woman and still now. She recognizes the congenital nature of colonialism at home and racism in America, yet she seemingly sets that aside, if only in this moment, if only to contextualize the resulting (sub)conscious harms we perpetuate on those we love.
“You want to hear bout family,” Mum says, “so I want to tell you bout this cousin, here, now. Look at all the things she did for people.”
Many of us are working in service, to uplift others, to uplift our communities, because it is how we survive. But an affable, impressive second cousin, who went from farmer’s daughter to labor advocate, couldn’t shock me like a great-grandfather who might have died in the Holocaust.
“You could do those things too, Mum,” I say. “You don’t have to do nursing anymore. Why you don’t call her? Or maybe do someting together?”
“In my retirement? Mi too tired.” She chuckles with actual mirth for the first time since we began.
The humor settles my stomach flutters to a buzz. The moths are lining my belly though, nearly covering my insides so that nothing feels right despite the laughter between us.
When my brother and his wife finally enter the room and the conversation, he is not quite so calm as Mum. Not so disgusted as one of my exes either. He doesn't ask why I highlight Mum's Jewish grandfather over her other grandparents, over the Black ones. At first, I expect my brilliantly charming brother, sometimes wiley and maybe boneless like that Viking prince, because apparently there's Scandinavian heritage among these multitudes too. But after “WTF, seriously?” more than one and two times, Wade asks how and why this resonates with me.
I start to parrot Dad, who says I feel too much, too strong. Then, maybe because I’m still the awkwardly curious schoolgirl who never stopped asking "why" bout evry-blinkin-ting. Wade doesn’t have this curiosity anymore, or maybe he just doesn't voice it. Maybe because he's more strongly connected to here or because he didn’t return home at every affordable moment, as I did. Or maybe like Mum, and double great grandma Jane too, he's focused on his present and future–his children. Or maybe, just maybe, this is yet another affront to people who decided cool auntie is enough. With no one else to carry them, nowhere to dissipate, generational traumas only fester inside me like these dusty-ass moths.
Memories resurface as Wade and I talk, of schoolmates in New Rochelle, where we landed after Brooklyn, after Kingston. Despite carrying the cross in church on Sundays, we weren't raised in any particular religion, didn’t keep to the faith of anything but North Avenue Pizza, beef patties with hardo bread, and the public library down the road. Our friends were immigrant kids, diplomat kids, project kids, Great Migration kids, refugee kids, ibanking kids, nursing, computing, and secretarial kids, and more still. We dug deeper than Happy Hanukkah and Dreidel Dreidel. We witnessed Hebrew school whining, sang Hava Nagila at friends' bar mitzvahs, shadow-planned avoided Birthright trips, and many such traditions that seemed reserved for Eastern European Jews in America. These activities sit alongside classroom lectures, term papers on The War, and images of emaciated White men, women, and children marching to their doom. I just never counted my own family among them. Childmind placed all those relatives in Jamaica. Childmind managed only to wonder what it was to look on your grandparents' arms and find numbers that marked them as survivors, how it felt to have such proof of trauma that all could accept, something beyond the color of your skin, and your simple presence in the Americas.
Back at the tea table, my hands rub my face, pushing the pressure behind my eyes into my temples. The softness there mocks the feeling that this news is so big, and yet everyone who knows its truth is gone or unbothered. My sister-in-law, ever my partner in the quest to preserve legacy, remains dumbfounded. She’s third gen to our first, though steeped in German and Norwegian heritage.
I turn away from her and from Wade, towards my mother, hoping she will take their silence as a hint. She doesn’t. The papers are already refiled inside her mauve date book. “Daddy is gone, but you might ask Uncle Harry. Move fast because his mind is going.” Her lips are pursed in sadness, but she knocks the papers on the table, upright first to align them, then setting them flat, patting the perfect pile. Conversation done, for her anyway.
“You’re going to do the research, right?” my sister-in-law asks. These grandparents are not Dad’s lineage. Neither Wade nor our younger brother and sister will take it up. Mum already did more than expected. With me, the linkages loom, a dread threatening to obscure more than our unmet connections.
I nod. The eclipse fans promise into my belly.
Years later, through family visits in Philadelphia and New York and all over Jamaica, we have more details about Charlie but little more on his parents. Bare traces beyond the wedding band John gave Jane, which no one can locate. At each turn, frustrations pound me. This research feels foreign and daunting despite my hard-fought Ivy League education. Though I learned about the Holocaust throughout my schooling, I was not taught any personal avenues of discovery, nor taught the broader history of all who were killed, much less that this history could be a part of me or anyone like me. With each additional trip to genealogy centers and records offices, new tidbits emerge, but I have yet to find conclusive details of John Solomon’s death. Not in the UK. Not in Jamaica. Not in Germany. Not through Mormon digitizing nor Holocaust databases. Every John Solomon listed is far younger than mine.
Even with the holes in their story, it seems possible to one day track the basic times, names, and places that John and Jane left and landed. It seems impossible to honor my West African and my indigenous forebears in remotely the same way. Still I'd hoped to document the nuances of John's fate among the Jewish multitudes of his own time, to allow John and Jane to take their place among those marginalized within the incomparable horrors, like the Roma and Sinti and more, alongside the disabled, queer, and Black persons who were killed or sterilized. Our family might never know more about the many truths we’ve lost to trauma and tall tales and time.
And still, Mum's peace escapes me.
I force myself simply to sit with these horrors in my own way, do my best to daylight them, and allow my moths to transform or settle. I hope they won't eclipse the peace, safety, and joy deserved by those of us right here, right now.
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