Jean Grae is a writer, comedian, producer, chef, minister and more with a family history as wide-ranging as her career. But Jean doesn’t know much about her family. So we help her out – taking her through South Africa’s complicated racial history, the birth of a political movement, and the pivotal role of carnivorous plants in science. And then, we introduce her to a mystery relative.
Twice Removed is produced by Meg Driscoll, Ngofeen Mputubwele, Audrey Quinn, and Kimmie Regler. Our senior producer is Eric Mennel. Editing by Jorge Just and Alex Blumberg. Michelle Harris is our fact checker. Music and sound design by Haley Shaw with additional mixing by Martin Peralta.
Special thanks to Basil George, Colin Fox, Damien Samuels, the Archives on St Helena, CeCe Moore, Andy Kill, Tanja Hammel, Patricia McCracken, Dr. Sean Field, Mark Adams, Cherie Bush, Adam Brown, Eowyn Langholf, Brian Willan, and Andrew Lumby. Voice casting by NYC VO Coach Shelly Shenoy. Carol Muller is the author of Musical Echoes: South African Women Thinking in Jazz.
Extra thanks to Caitlin Kenney, Stevie Lane, Ale Lariu, Kevin Turner, Kelly Coonan, Katelyn Bogucki and all of the lovely people around Gimlet who helped us get this show off the ground. Plus, Harrison Topp, Chris Wright, Rebecca Heymann, Jon Anderson and Terri Raymond. Bonnie Antosh and Jeremy Lloyd sing our jingles.
If you’re a fan of the show, we would love it if you could rate or review us on iTunes. It makes a big, big difference and is really one of the best ways to help others find out about the show. So hop into iTunes or your podcast app and let us know what you think of the show.
Twice Removed is a production of Gimlet Media. I’m AJ Jacobs. Thank you for listening, it’s been wonderful to get to know you this season
Jean: I can be many things. I’m black but I’m also many other things. If I didn’t have all these tattoos, assassin would be a really, really good job for me.
Jean: Because depending on what time of the year it is, or what hair I decide to wear, I can be many many things. I’m a spice blend. I’m gumbo. I don’t know, I don’t know what it is.
This is Twice Removed, the show that proves we are in fact one big family. Right now there are two people in separate studios. What they do not realize is they are related. One of those people, our mystery relative, is listening in from somewhere in America. The other is sitting across from me right now. Would you please go ahead and introduce yourself.
Jean: Hi. My name is Tsidi Azida Ibrahim. Born Tsidi Azida Brand. You probably know me as Jean Grae.
Jean: I’m a writer, a producer, a rapper.
Jean: A chef, a minister now, I have a church. An engineer, uh did i say that already? I dunno. I was a dancer in my first life. It’s a lot of things. And my genealogy is exactly the same as my career. Many slashes.
Jean you were born in Cape Town, South Africa. But you and your family moved to the U.S. when you were very young. So tell me about that, what was that like for you, being from South Africa, but growing up in New York City?
Jean: Yes. Being here as a teenager in America, there was always a question of what are you?
AJ: And what would people assume?
Jean: So I was Puerto Rican for many years.
AJ: People thought you were Puerto Rican.
Jean: No, I told them I was Puerto Rican because it was easier. I don’t have any other South African friends here. Any other Coloured South African friends. So who do I relate to?
Well let’s talk about your mom for a minute. She was born in the nineteen thirties and she passed away a couple of years ago… Can you tell me a little about her?
Jean: She was born Beatrice Bertha Benjamin which is the most 1934 name you’ve ever heard in your life. In Cape Town, South Africa. She was a Jazz Singer and composer. Very much an activist. She did something called Nations in Me.
Nations in me…
Jean: Really singing about you know the the history of her being a quote Cape Coloured woman. I have so many nations in me and I’m not necessarily one thing and that’s beautiful. And I – I’m beautiful as me.
Looking at my family tree… I see that I’m the fruit of their love…
Jean: Now listen about my mom. Her biggest dream… All she wanted to do was to say I am these things. And she asked questions all of her life trying to figure this out. And she couldn’t really get a lot of information. And she was like I want you to know. If i don’t get to do this, please you have to know, you have to find out. So it’s – it’s for her.
Well today, Jean, we are going to find out who your mother was… who YOU are. We’ve got five stories today that we hope will answer that question.
And there’s a theme running throughout these stories: labels.
Jean: That sounds perfect for me. Cause it’s something that I’ve been trying to escape all my life.
AJ: Escape labelling.
Jean: — being labeled. Yeah.
We have stories of labels that people want… labels people reject, and labels people create for themselves. So if you look over here, on your family map. There you are on the left side… and then it goes through fifty people… all the way ‘til we land on your mystery relative way over there on the right…
I’m actually going to check in with them right now…Mystery Relative are you there? I can hear you but Jean cannot. How are you doing?
MR: It’s uh, I-I’m tickled pink, I uh – i’m so excited to be rumored to be related to someone talented.
AJ: And do you have any message for Jean that you’d like me to pass on?
MR: Sure. The message is, justice will be served.
AJ: Oh that’s a good message. I like the optimism. Okay so your mystery relative has a message for you, and that message is, justice will be served.
Jean: Either that really sounds like someone I’d be related to or that sounds like a threat.
Jean: Justice will be served.
Ok don’t go anywhere. Soon enough we’ll be introducing you two, live on air.
For our first story today, Jean, we’re going just one step on our family map here… to your mom. She was born Beatrice Benjamin… and as you know, she changed her name later in life to Sathima.
This story is about a pivotal time in your mom’s life… It intersects with one of the most brutal attempts in history to enforce labels… apartheid.
It describes a legal system that used race to dictate just about every aspect of South African life. People lived under apartheid for half a century… it only ended in the nineteen nineties.
Now Jean, you visited South Africa when you were in grade school… this was before apartheid ended. So can you tell me what that was like?
Jean: I do remember being on a train. Where it’s the whites only and the Coloured section. And it’s like I got in a f****ing time machine I mean, there’s bathrooms, there’s places you can’t go. And then realizing that everyone there is used to that. And I have to come back and go to school now. And I’m like, I don’t want to talk about your Rosa Parks, or your Martin Luther, I just did this. I just did this. This is not you know your textbook… This is happening now. It’s happening right now.
AJ: You talk about South Africa was the first place you came where people looked like you, on the one hand, so it was almost like you were, you finally–
Jean: I’m home, you know.
AJ: You’re home. But on the other side–
Jean: I was like, I’m home. And my home is f***ed up!
Well Jean, As you know, your mother was a jazz singer and composer…She was later nominated for a Grammy. She played with Duke Ellington… But she fell in love with jazz during apartheid… As a teenager, she found escape from apartheid in the mixed-race Jazz clubs of the Cape.
SATHIMA: It was so beautiful. I was a wild person, running off with these wild musicians,
That’s your mom talking in a diner with a musicologist, Carol Muller.
Sathima: There was all this mixing going on too – running around into African community, running around into the white community. I’m just talking about something so warm, so real…so exciting. It was natural.
Jean: [laughs] That was nice to hear, that was really nice to hear.
Your mom’s experience in the jazz clubs was very different from what you experienced on the train a few decades later… And that difference is rooted in the deeper history of colonialism in Africa.
For hundreds of years, Europeans exploited Africa’s people and resources. And then, in the late 1800s, European powers came together and carved up most of Africa between them: The French, Spanish, Belgian, British… everyone took a piece.
Jean: You know what’s really the worst? White supremacy. It’s just — god this story is so long. dammit white people! Dammit! Dammit you guys – chill out! You got all the stuff already! Yeah I’m sorry continue.
AJ: No, not at all.
Jean: I like to interrupt with “white supremacy” every now and then.
So these european powers created a de facto racial hierarchy… with whites at the top, and black Africans on the bottom. In South Africa, the apartheid government forced millions of people to relocate… there were restrictions on movement… on employment… everybody felt the effects.
Philip: My name is Philip Kgosana. I’ve just turned eighty…. 8-0 years now.
AJ: Wow happy birthday
Philip: Thank you.
So Jean, this is Phillip Kgosana. He was born around the same time as your mom.
And he was an early leader of the Pan Africanist Congress… It was a political party fighting for equal rights for black South Africans.
Kgosana himself is a black South African. And because of that, he was forced to carry the main tool the government used to enforce apartheid… the passbook.
Kgosana: The passbook, was a document the size of two passports. By law, you had to carry it on your person at all times. As soon as you move out of your gate, you must feel the weight of this document in your pocket.
Jean: [sigh] AJ it’s too early for this…
The passbook dictated where Black South Africans were allowed to travel. If you were caught without your passbook, you would very likely be arrested. The threat was enough to push people to extremes.
Philip: this guy, was working in Johannesburg in a big factory. Where In the morning when they arrived at the factory, they would have to take off their jackets and hang them in the cloak room. And he had left his pass inside his jacket there and somewhere around 10 o’clock there was this siren that rang to say the factory was on fire. And everybody was running out. And when this guy was outside, he realized that his most valuable document was in his jacket. And the factory was burning and He had to decide whether to dive into the flames to save his pass.
AJ: Oh my god.
Philip: And uh the pass being so powerful, he decided to dive into the flames of course, he died.
The pressure that apartheid put on South Africans was overwhelming… But… in nineteen sixty… the slightest possibility of hope appeared. Big changes were happening across the continent.
AM: So 1960 looked very promising for many Africans.
This is Dr. Azaria Mbughuni, he’s a professor of African history at Lane College.
On January first, nineteen sixty, African colonies start winning independence at an astonishing rate. First it’s Cameroon… then Senegal… A few weeks later Togo wins its independence from France..
AM: All in all 17 African countries won independence in the course of 1960.
Nineteen sixty becomes known as “The Year Of Africa.” The year when Africans across the continent would finally be governed by Africans… not white European minorities… Which for South Africa would have meant the end of apartheid. Something even european leaders were starting to acknowledge.
MacMIllan: We have seen the awakening of national consciousness in peoples who have for centuries have lived in dependence upon some other power.
That’s Harold Macmillan, the British Prime Minister… He’d arrived in Cape Town to deliver a warning to the all-white South African parliament: what’s happening everywhere else… it’s coming here too.
MacMIllan:The wind of change is blowing thru this continent. Whether we like it or not. This growth of national consciousness is a political fact. And we must all accept it as a fact.
For people like Philip Kgosana, the one who told us about the passbooks, it felt like the winds of change were blowing right at their backs. There was hope… hope that they could end apartheid. One month after Harold Macmillan’s speech… they took action.
In March of nineteen sixty, Phillip Kgosana and other activists planned a day of coordinated marches in cities and townships all across the country…
Kgosana led a march in a black township called Langa with a few thousand people. He gave protesters one very simple instruction about what to do with their passbooks.
Philip: Just to leave them at home. And to walk straight to the police station in small groups and there go and surrender ourselves for arrest.
They all walked to the police stations, without their passbooks, and offered to turn themselves in. But the police refused to arrest them. There were too many… But that night, protesters called a meeting to figure out their next move.
Philip: As I was moving towards where the meeting was, the police opened fire, killing five of us. And by the time I reached the scene of the shooting it was all commotion, and we had to pick-up those who had been killed.
What’s worse… Langa wasn’t the only tragedy. At the protest in Sharpeville, the death toll was even higher. Here’s a written account by a journalist who was there:
We heard the chatter of a machine gun, then another, then another… One woman was hit about ten yards from our car. Her companion, a young man, went back when she fell. He thought she had stumbled. Then he turned her over and saw that her chest had been shot away. He looked at the blood on his hand and said: ‘My God, she’s gone!’ Hundreds of kids were running, too.
Some of the children, hardly as tall as the grass, were leaping like rabbits. Some were shot, too. Still the shooting went on… Most of the bodies were strewn on the road running through the field…
When the shooting started, it did not stop until there was no living thing in the huge compound in front of the police station.”
At least sixtynine people died. News spread around the globe. It became known as the Sharpeville massacre.
After Sharpeville, the apartheid regime clamped down completely. It instituted a state of emergency… outlawed the black political parties like Philip Kgosana’s.
And even those in-between places that felt like a refuge… places like the jazz clubs where your mother performed … they disappeared too. She said the government realized this kind of music was bringing people together… and that could be dangerous.
Sathima: We couldn’t even work weekends in the white areas. We couldn’t do that anymore. Because they said no more Coloured artists. No more African artists going into the clubs. And we didn’t have our own nightclubs. And we didn’t have our own spaces where we could play. And that is when we knew we’d either have to shut up completely. Or we’d have to leave.
So Jean, your mother and father did leave in nineteen sixty two… they eventually landed in New York City…
And in hearing this story, Jean, it’s clear there’s so much heartache wrapped up in your mom’s years in South Africa. And it’s a heartache she channeled into her music…
I’ve been gone much too long
Sathima: jazz as we know it’s a cry, it’s a pain. It’s about joy, it’s about pain. And the pain is the same in South Africa.
(Bring music back up)
That’ I’m home, I’m home, to stay…
Jean:Ah, dammit, there we go.
Jean: There go the tears… Not in a sad way. I haven’t heard her voice in a long time. Her biggest joy came out of composing and creating and recording. There are some people who can say that when they’re creating and doing those kinds of things it’s filling a void, but I think she was overflowing with so many things that she just had to keep making things and keep making more.
AJ: Do you feel like that’s the same with you? Do you feel like you’re overflowing?
Jean: I — oof. I think i always try to jump into new things, but I also think i do that because I know that she didn’t necessarily have all the opportunity to do all those things. I think I try to make up for a lot of what she couldn’t do.
- We are going to take a quick break. When we come back… we’ll meet two family members who took a very different approach to activism in south africa.
AD BREAK 1
Welcome back to Twice Removed. The show that proves we are in fact one big family. Jean, we just heard about the moment your family decided to leave South Africa during apartheid. Now, we’re going to hear about two people who tried to use labels … to their advantage.
So, look over here at this family map, we start at your mother Sathima… and we’re going just two steps… one, two…. and we land on her grandparents, that’s your great grandparents. To start… we have a handwritten letter from 1911.
Jean: SHUT UP.
AJ: We do!
Jean: SHUT UP.
AJ: It is quite amazing.
Jean: OH MY GOD. Can you put the sound of – you know that screaming goat? Can you just put that as all my responses? Oh this is insane.
…and this is written by your great grandfather, Edward Henry… here’s the letter:
“To His Worship the Mayor and Council
I am instructed to write in accordance with a resolution passed in our meeting held on the 17th of this month. Asking you to consider the just claims of Coloured Ratepayers as to Bathing Facilities in connection with the proposed Borough Swimming Baths.
I am yours faithfully,
- M. Henry
Basically, your great grandfather is asking that Coloured taxpayers have access to swimming pools. Which they helped pay-
Jean: Motherf***in right. He’s great – and he’s got very nice penmanship.
It was very polite but there’s an undercurrent-
Jean: But it – but it says, Hey motherf***er. I’m paying my taxes. Why the f***
can’t we swim?
Jean: So that’s good.
AJ: Right. I like it, between the lines.
But, Jean, buried in this letter… there are decades of South African politics at play… Politics your great grandparents played huge part in.
Do you know anything about your great-grandparents?
Jean: No. Tell me. Everything.
Here we go. They were solidly middle class. Edward was an upholsterer –
Jean: I like to upholster!
AJ: You like it, too?
Jean: I do.
AJ: I like it, you’re very DIY.
Your great grandmother… Francesca de la Cruz…. she was a kindergarten teacher, and later a music teacher,
Jean: My mom went into teaching as well…
Exactly. And she’d do these little operettas alongside a violinist.…
Jean: That’s great! I would go see that show.
And there’s one other thing about them….
YC: They would’ve been identified as Coloured.
Jean: That’s my cousin, Yvette.
AJ: You got it!
Jean: I know that voice.
You got it! That was not your mystery cousin,
— just so you know.
She’s Francesca and Edward’s great – granddaughter, just like you. And Yvette says “Coloured” means something specific in South Africa.
Yvette: So if you weren’t white and you weren’t black, you were then called Coloured. And if you were from Cape Town you were called Cape Coloured. I’m known as Cape Coloured, and if Jean was still living in South Africa, she’d be identified as Cape Coloured, as well.
So Jean, in the last story, we heard about the racial hierarchy during apartheid… But in the early 1900s… your great grandparents’ time… that hierarchy wasn’t as rigid.
White people were still at the top… Coloured people in the middle, and black people at the bottom. But with the right education or the right career… Coloured people could make their way into the upper classes.
You see South Africa wasn’t even a country yet… the British were fighting the Dutch settlers for control over that land. And the British needed help. So they recruited black and Coloured South Africans to fight…and they made them a promise…
VBS: The British are promising Africans and Coloured people, that they will get equal rights, with a British victory.
This is Vivian Bickford-Smith, and he’s-
Jean: I wasn’t gonna say that. [both laugh] That’s Vivian!
AJ: Yeah he is not the mystery cousin either. He’s an emeritus professor of history at the University of Cape Town…
VBS: Equal rights, this is using the words of the time, Equal rights for all civilized men,
AJ: Equal rights for all, black, Coloured, white, it didn’t matter…
VBS: Yes, yes. Civilized of course. But civilized is the weasel word there. I mean it’s basically saying people who are western educated, who live in respectable fashion will get the vote.
With the help of Coloured and black South Africans, the British do win the fight. But … they don’t keep their promise.
Jean: SURPRISE! Surprise you guys.
AJ: There’s the twist. Heheh.
White people made up only about a quarter of the population, but they had all the political power. And they kept finding excuses not to fulfill their promise.
VBS: The ground was always shifted, the goalposts were always moved. The idea is if you went on being a certain way, well yes in time, //we’ll look at it.
AJ: And what was the reaction when the british, reneged on their promise?
VBS: Well it was one of enormous despair and disillusionment.
But also … determination. A group of Coloured South Africans come together to start a political organization… the first of it’s kind to fight for the rights of Coloured people. It’s called The APO. The African Political Organization.
Which gets us back to the letter at the beginning of the story. The one written by your great grandfather Edward. The letterhead says, African Political Organization… right there on the top left of the page.
AJ: So Jean’s family really was on the forefront of political action in modern South Africa–
VBS: Absolutely, absolutely. Very much so.
AJ: One thing that struck me about this letter is just the tone. It’s so genteel and polite.
VBS: It’s done incredibly respectfully. I mean it’s saying, you know, just take us, take us seriously.
The British had promised equal rights to so-called civilized people. So the APO decided they’re gonna be so “civilized” the British cannot weasel out of their promise.
The APO, they put on concerts… they lobbied for access at the local theater… Your great grandfather Edward he gave out attendance prizes at the local school…
But the British didn’t keep their promise. The offer of equal rights was just a strategy to divide non-white south africans. If upper class Coloured people felt more “civilized” than other South Africans… the disenfranchised groups wouldn’t unite… and the british could keep power.
Jean: That’s always the game. That’s always the game. That’s – it’s it’s divide and conquer. And uh you know keep everyone fighting amongst themselves and you’re like “alright, well, we’ll just keep on doing this while you’re bickering with each other and killing each other off.”
In his letter, your great grandfather is asking for swimming pool access for Coloured people… But not all Coloured people… just the ones who payed taxes… the elite.
Alright so fast forward three generations… same family… same swimming pools. We asked Edward’s great granddaughter…that’s your cousin, Yvette… what were those pools were like when she was growing up under apartheid.
Yvette: You weren’t allowed to come into the/ public swimming pools because they were for white people only. Unless you were a doctor or teacher or worked in government, //[then]// you had access to um swimming pools// but during designated periods.
It’s crazy to think that what your great grandparents would have seen as real progress… getting some swimming pool access for some Coloured people… just a couple generations later it would be seen as discrimination.
AJ: What would you say to your great grandpa if he – if he – if you could send him a message.
Jean: Um, one, I really like the penmanship.
Jean: And two, you know, it’s – it’s easy to be conflicted now and say well you weren’t arguing for for everybody’s rights you were arguing for you. You were saying, hey let us in. But then, you also have to understand and you’re like What else, what else is it that you want us to do at this point. This is the nicest I can be, I’m paying my taxes. What else do you want me to do. I’m just happy that he did something. You were a part of something, you make yourself a part of history. You did something. You tried. You have to at least try.
OK Jean, we are on story number three now. We’re gonna go further back in time to answer your mother’s question of where your family came from.
So take a look here at your family map…We’ve got Francesca and Edward, that’s your great grandparents, right here… and now we’re going just four steps along the chain… a birth, a marriage, two generations back… We’re gonna visit a place that’s almost a part of your family itself… A place that nearly all of your great great grandparents called home before South Africa…
And to get there… we have to hop on a ship… heading west from Cape Town… to the middle of the Atlantic Ocean….
YON: You just see water and more water.
YON: You might see a ship or two. Or three, perhaps.
YON: But you can actually travel for five days without seeing anything else.
YON: And then you approach this place that sort of arises very starkly out of the ocean. Islands usually conjure up ideas of white sandy beaches and palm trees, but here you encounter a mountain arising out of the ocean, this sort of huge rock-like structure.
This is Daniel Yon. He’s a professor of anthropology, and he’s from this tiny island…
Jean: Is it St Helena?
AJ: It is St Helena! Exactly. So you have heard of that?
And because so much of your family lived there, Jean, nearly all of your mother’s great grandparents… we thought maybe the island itself has part of the answer to your mom’s question “where am I from?”’
Jean: Did you ask the island?
AJ: Yes! We interviewed the island.
Jean: And here’s some videotape of the island!
So Saint Helena has always had a strange and special pull… Even since its discovery… Take this unbelievable but actually true story of its very first inhabitant… A Portuguese soldier named Don Fernando Lopez.
While fighting in India, in fifteen thirteen, Lopez defected from the army…
YON: As a punishment, he was deformed…. his right hand or an ear taken off….
It was actually his right hand and both of his ears, his left thumb and his nose…
Jean: That’s very random things!
And it doesn’t end there. Also his hair and beard were scraped off with clamshells…
Jean: Oh come on!
And he was dumped onto a boat back to Portugal.
Along the way, the ship made a pit stop at a small, uninhabited island: St Helena. Lopez escaped into the jungle and hid in a cave.
Jean: How? Did he roll? What, This is a crazy story…
AJ: They didn’t cut off his feet, just his hands…
Jean: Oh no yeah, sorry. He can run, sorry.
AJ: He can run.
He stayed on St Helena for ten years. Sometimes passing ships would leave goats, or fruit trees. One left a rooster. It became his friend. And Lopez became sort of a legend. A story passed along by sailors.
His story reached the king of Portugal… who offered Lopez an opportunity to meet the Pope. The Pope was impressed by Lopez, and offered to grant him one wish.
To go back to St Helena.
Jean: What?! For the rooster?
AJ: could be
Jean: He’s a good guy.
AJ: He’s a good friend to that rooster.
Now by the early eighteenth century… there was a massive shift…. St Helena basically became the center of the world…
YON: The south Atlantic world was a very densely occupied waterscape. I mean that was an incredibly busy route.
Because St Helena was perfectly located as a halfway point in the Atlantic… Ships traveling between Europe and the East, or the Americas and Africa, stopped there for fresh food and water after months at sea…
YON: Imagine it in the middle of the Atlantic as the center of the spider’s web, the nexus of these criss-crossing shipping routes.
It’s during this time that your family, Jean, first shows up in historical records.
Your great, great, great grandmother, Sophia George, was born on St Helena in 1813. And we actually have a copy of her baptismal record.
Jean: WOW!!! You guys!! I’ve never heard that name before.
Jean: No. Never heard that name before. That’s amazing. [exhale] Ok. All right. Ok. Hi, Sophia!
Yeah so…. In 1838, she married a man named Benjamin Benjamin.
AJ: Have you heard of Benjamin Benjamin?
Jean: No but that is a fantastic name. They didn’t try. They didn’t try.
Jean, at the top of the show, you told us that your mom’s biggest dream was to know what she was and where she came from…
But the thing about St Helena is, no one is truly from there… every St Helenian’s ancestors came from somewhere else.
Since we couldn’t find any clues on the island, Jean, a couple months ago we had you take a DNA test. And now Jean… we have your results
Jean: I’m gonna throw up. Holy s***. I’m just gonna not talk for a little bit. Ok, ok you talk. Somebody talk, somebody else talk, while I just stare at this.
So you can see we have two main divisions here. The first… about 45% of your DNA… comes from… the African Continent. This is largely from your father’s side of the family-
Jean: That’s a LOT of African.
AJ: More than you expected?
You share DNA with the Bantu people, one of the earliest populations known to man…
Jean: So pretty much like the first people. Like THE people.
AJ: The people, yeah. Like alllll of our great great great great grandparents.
Jean: So I’m mostly The People.
AJ: You are The People. You’re the original.
Jean: F*** yeah! I’m the OA. That’s what we’re doin’ here. Ok.
The other main part of your DNA …and what we believe to be from your mother’s side… comes from South and Central Asia. Jean, it is very likely that your mother’s side of the family arrived in St. Helena not from Africa… but the area around India.
People wound up in St Helena in a lot of different ways: some were traders, some soldiers, others settlers… and one of the ways that people got to St Helena was through the slave trade.
Jean: Alright white people, here we go again
YON: The slaves that were brought to St. Helena were not from Africa. Some were, but the majority were not.
AJ: Where were they from?
YON: The Indian Ocean Basin, including India itself. Some of the smaller islands that make up Indonesia now, and Malaysia, and Madagascar.
Which means, Jean, that this part of your mom’s family was almost certainly brought to St Helena as slaves.
Jean: Generally, uh any like brown people around the world, you always expect to hear the words ‘slaves’. So I wasn’t not expecting slaves today. Especially uh um brown people in in different places and you know that their family has been there for generations, it’s – you’re like ‘oh so when did you guys decide to come here of your own volition and then live really uncomfortably amongst white people, I’m sure?’ Like no, I’m pretty sure that somebody uh bought and then sold you. And there’s been a lot of pain in your history.
It’s our world history that we have to understand has worked that way, it doesn’t have to work that way in the future, but we you know gotta accept how a lot of us got to a lot of places.
Well… Jean… we have mostly answered your mother’s question from the beginning of the show… where your family came from… but! We still have a mystery relative waiting for you!
Speaking of which, let’s do a quick check in. Mystery Relative… how are you doing? Remember, I can hear you but Jean cannot?
NO: Hello, this is this is quite fascinating.
Had you heard about St. Helena before today?
NO: I had, in the maritime novels of Patrick O’Brian.
NO: It’s a particular chapter of – of nerdery in which I indulge heavily.
AJ: Well now you know! You have a family connection there.
NO: It’s crazy, yeah! This is really uh quite edifying.
Well sit tight. Just two more stories before we introduce the two of you.
So, Jean, let’s go back to the family map, over here. Now, right here, your ancestors from St. Helena, the Benjamins… one of them married a British settler in South Africa. So we’re actually crossing over to the British arm of your family now. His name was Alfred. And from Alfred, we follow the map eleven steps, over to here… to a distant cousin of his… another settler named Mary Barber. She is our next stop.
Mary Barber was South Africa’s first woman botanist.
Yeah, she was one of the most published women scientists of her time. There are plants named after her. And she fought very much against the labels the scientific community put on women 150 years ago.
It’s around this time, Charles Darwin publishes his theory of natural selection. Which shatters people’s understanding of themselves and the world around them.
But for all his progressive genius, in some ways, Darwin was stuck in the past. For example, his view of women.
Tina: He, say for instance, grants birds greater powers, if you will, than than human females.
This is Tina Gianquitto. She teaches the history of science at Colorado School of Mines.
Tina: When he’s talking about birds, for instance, he argues that female birds exhibit choice when it comes to the selection of a mate. And when he gets to women, he says women are not in the position of choosing their mate. But rather that they are the ones that are chosen. And so this is where I think he’s unable to get out of, the Victorian conceptions of gender.
To much of society… botany itself reinforced victorian gender roles… It taught women to be like flowers… passive, beautiful…. And that they exist solely for reproduction.
And because of that… it was pretty much the one science that women were allowed to do.
But, Mary Barber, and a lot of women like her, flipped all that on its head. And they used science to do it. By focusing on one particular kind of plant.
Tina: There are so many women botanists in the 19th century who are fascinated by carnivorous plants.
AJ: Why do you think that is?
Tina: I think carnivorous plants defy the conventional narrative of what a flower is supposed to do, a flower is not supposed to lure, trap, kill and ingest, quote unquote, reasoning beings, you know they’re not – they’re not supposed to do this.
And so carnivorous plants bring about an important realization.
Tina: What holds true for the plant also can hold true for the human.
If women are going to be told that they should be like plants…then they’re gonna be like carnivorous plants.
Tina: There’s something that is very appealing about carnivorous plants metaphorically
AJ: Flowers and plants are seen as passive, but these are badass plants
Tina: Right these are bad-ass plants.
AJ: Are women reading this symbolism into them at the time like we are now?
Tina: Yes, there’s a sub genre if you will of carn – it’s very small sub-genre – of carnivorous plant poetry and many more articles about carnivorous plants that are written by women reference this idea that just as these plants are overturning conventional narratives of what a plant is, so women, can, should, do overturn conventional notions of what women are supposed to do as well.
For these scientists, this was important work. Because these innocuous, pretty flowers suggested a new identity for the women studying them.
Tina: I know for a lot of these individual women, so much was at stake for them. In either getting the vote, or getting education… they believed that society would change for the better if women had access to these things.
AJ: How successful were they at changing that conversation?
Tina: we love grand narratives and narratives that change a course of history and I think when we’re looking at women, particularly at women in science in the 19th century, I’m not so sure the grand narrative is where we need to look. There are a lot of minor victories… I think that just their mere presence as botanical workers is pretty remarkable.
AJ: So botany sorta flattened the world, it helped women be equal at least in one small way to men?
Tina: Yeah exactly and it gave them access to a world outside the home, you know. It enlarged their world pretty significantly.
So there is your carnivorous plant-loving ancestor.
Jean: Sounds about right.
AJ: How so?
Jean: Um, you know. I-I-It’s a very very long line of women who were like “no, we’re not gonna do that.” And also we’re delicate flowers.
AJ: You’re both!
Jean: And also… we’ll f***ing kill you. Good job! Good job, Mary!
Now before we move on history is complicated so I should note that although Mary Barber had many good qualities-
Jean: Uh oh
She was the first woman botanist recognized in South Africa, almost certainly women studying the land before she was there. So when Barber and her fellow settlers moved in, they took away land from the local Khosa population… and those people were surely studying those plants Mary would later go on to write about. So in short…..minor victories for some can also be losses…. for others.
Jean: Yeah. Dammit Mary. Gentrifying ass Mary…with her goddamn plants.
Jean, we’ve done it. We’ve made it through your family tree to the last stop before your mystery relative.
Occasionally, Jean, one person can force an entire family to confront its history. To question who they are and where they come from. That’s what happened with our final relative. She’s 20 steps from Mary Barber… nine marriages, and a bunch of kids… And her name is Nannie Stafford.
Nannie died in 1933… but her great granddaughter is still alive. Her name is Yvette (like your cousin, coincidentally) and she lives in southern England.
YM: I fight old age with a vengeance, I do. For my 60th birthday I had a tattoo.
AJ: Oh really? Of what?
YM: I’ve had a little flower. It’s on my shoulder. And it’s lovely. I’m thrilled with it.
Jean: Ahhh I love her!
Yvette lives in a rural town in Cornwall where the population is 99% white… Yvette’s family included.
YM: I’m very white. Just white.
But … years ago … there was this one thing …
The only thing… my nephew he was born very white skin, but he had very very curly hair. And he looked like, you know the singer prince?
AJ: Oh yes, absolutely
YM: He looked like him.
AJ: Oh that’s interesting.
YM: We did think then, well I wonder.
Growing up, Yvette didn’t know much about her great grandmother, Nannie. She hadn’t even heard many stories about her. Until one night, about a decade ago…
YM: My mother was staying with my sister for christmas and right out of the blue she said “your great grandmother was black.” So my sister said “What?”
Yvette was shocked. If she didn’t know something that basic about her great grandmother, what other secrets were still out there?
She called in some professional help.
TC: Yes my name is Tracy Castle and I’m a historian.
Tracy is a historian of 19th century America. Also… her mother happens to be Yvette’s neighbor. Yvette gathered up the few records she could find about Nannie Stafford, and asked Tracy to do some digging. Report back if she found anything interesting.
TC: And uh I started to have a look at it and uh started coming across some things that were um… well they just looked a little bit odd. I wasn’t expecting to go across the Atlantic, much less to a slave plantation on a coastal island of Georgia.
This is the story Tracy uncovered.
In 1853, Nannie Stafford was born on a plantation in Georgia. Her father was a slave owner named Robert… her mother was a slave named Juda. Nannie was enslaved from the moment she was born.
At the onset of the civil war, she was sent north, to New Jersey, a free state.
Nannie was adopted by an abolitionist couple. When she was older, she applied to the newly formed Howard University Medical School.
And she got in, and received her medical degree… one of the first black women in the country ever to achieve such a feat.
She was only thirteen years removed from life as an enslaved person. But even after all she’d accomplished, she still encountered more barriers. In the eighteen seventies, it was incredibly difficult for women to practice medicine in the United States.
She eventually opened her own clinic in Germany. A sanitarium for women and children. She took treatments reserved mostly for the wealthy, and made them accessible to everyone, even the poor. For this, the town where she lived gave her an award. A Catholic Church there set aside a whole day to praise her and thank God for her work.
Jean: Hell yeah, Nannie. Damn! That’s – I am not doing enough in my life. God.
She married a man… a white musician named Gustav. They had a son… who married a white woman… they had a daughter… who married a white man… they had a daughter… and they named her Yvette.
Nannie died in the nineteen thirties, and by the time Yvette learned anything about the family’s racial history, almost all personal records of Nannie Stafford’s life had been erased.
TC: After Nannie’s death there was a big bonfire and all the paperwork was burned.
And so Nannie Stafford… born a slave… educated at Howard… celebrated for her medical work… her story was hidden away.
Yvette has really come to admire Nannie. She keeps a photo of her in the living room.
YVETTE: She’s really stunning, it was taken on her wedding day. It’s a profile. She’s wearing a veil and like a lacy dress. I think I’ve got her wedding ring.
AJ: You have Nannie’s wedding ring?
YVETTE: I think. My mother always said it belonged to her grandmother.
AJ: What does it look like?
YVETTE: Very thin, it’s a platinum one, and of course being worn for so many years it’s very thin. I can’t wear it or it will break. Quite big she had quite big fingers.
AJ: And how about your fingers?
YVETTE: They were smaller but not that small. I’m quite a chunky little thing
AJ: Where do you keep it now?
YVETTE:I keep in a jewelry box upstairs. I do take it out and put it on and look at it and just wonder. Makes me feel close to her. I would just love to be like her.
Jean: That was so beautiful! One thing, it’s it’s, man if you’ve got black in you’re family, it’s coming back, it’s gonna show up. black is strong, black will come out generations later. And, and it’s great that. Thank you for telling me all these stories of women who were like we’re gonna understand where we came from and not deny any of that, but still use that and say, um we’re gonna do what we want we’re gonna change the world.
Ok Jean, we have made it!
Jean: Ahh, you guuuuys!!!
We have traveled through your family tree, 51 relatives, and we’re back in the present. And we are ready to meet your mystery relative. Are you ready?
Jean: I am ready.
(Laughs) Well we are ready. Right after these words from our sponsors.
Jean: You bastards.
Alright, everybody! Welcome back to Twice Removed. We have spent this episode exploring the family of Jean Grae. We we’ve gone to South Africa, to the middle of the Atlantic ocean, and back to South Africa. And now… we are ready to meet your mystery relative, Jean.
From Nannie Stafford we go 6 generations back in time…. through 4 marriages….. and then travel another 11 generations forward in time… to land at the present….. at your mystery relative… Who is in a studio on the other side of the country.
We have him pulled up on a laptop here… screen’s covered with a blanket… mystery relative, what do you have to say for yourself?
MR: Ah, it’s scary in here
AJ: Are you ready? I’m gonna count down from three. Three, two, one, the blanket is off and …
Jean: (gasps) It did sound like you. It’s … that’s crazy! (laughs) Hello, Nick Offerman.
Nick: Hi, there.
AJ: Nick Offerman, from, uh, perhaps the most famous for his role as Ron Swanson in Parks and Recreation.
Jean: my love of flannel and also meats makes much more sense.
AJ: there you go.
Jean: Okay, so how, how does this work? What?
AJ: I can give you an exact way that you’re related, are you ready? Jean, Nick Offerman, is your fourth great grandmother’s husband’s third great grandfather’s (Jean laughs) daughter’s husband’s third great aunt’s grandson’s wife’s fourth great grand daughter’s husband, of course.
Jean: Uh, yeah, that’s, that’s what I thought.
AJ: (laughs) Exactly.
Jean: That’s what I was gonna say.
Nick: Makes a lot of sense.
Jean: we have met once before, and, uh, it’s something that’s stayed with me because I walked in the room and I kind of, I hugged everybody and, uh, then I was like, I feel like maybe, maybe he, maybe he’s not necessarily a hugger. And I didn’t ask you. And I thought it was a forced hug
Nick: (Noise) I love hugging!
Jean: (sigh) So it was just me then? (laughs)
Nick: Well I have a weird thing where I’m, I’m super soft and sensitive. Uh, I’m like a flower, that enjoys eating meat.
AJ: Nick, tell me a little about your family. What are some similarities and differences in your ancestry with Jean’s?
Nick: The things that jumped out at me, they resonated less with my family and more with me personally because I have this wonderful family in Illinois. And they, to a person, uh, they are school teacher, librarian, nurse, paramedic, a handful of farmers, they’re all these wonderful hardworking public servants and I inexplicably just had to go to show biz and dance for the people. Um.
Jean: Are you, are you the only one, like, uh, in your close, close family that does show business or entertainment? Is everybody else not?
Nick: Yeah, as, as bit of an iconoclast kind of had to go my own way. It’s gratifying to hear that that’s possibly genetic to an extent.
AJ: So what resonated with you? What surprised you?
Nick: Well, I’m, I’m less affected by any particular detail than by the sum total of this experience that truly shows we’re all the same. You know, we’re all in the same family. So, why are we acting like such jackasses here in this country? (Jean chuckles)
Jean: I’m really happy that you brought up, you know, the DNA test. That’s an amazing thing to do To understand that, you know, it’s not just me and my close knit family that I just know about, and maybe if we all actually really do the research and find out that we are connected in that way that we would feel less of the need to be f***ing assholes to everyone all the time because it’s your family. We are, um, kind of being held back by not really looking at ourselves and not dealing with the problems from the past so that we can all grow and evolve…cause it’s the future already. Let’s, let’s … We can’t do this and then also, like, have jet packs at the same time, that’s f***in silly.
AJ: Jean let me just ask you before we wrap up, how’d we do? Did we answer your mom’s question, do you think?
Jean: Yes. I think she would be, she would be very, very excited to see these strong women. A lot of it was not understanding how, how strong she was and how, how much she was breaking the rules and breaking boundaries by just existing and doing what she was doing and writing the kind of things she was doing. And, and she was a freedom fighter. But I, I think she always felt like she wasn’t as strong, so I think this would be a really beautiful thing for her to say I come from a line of these strong women who wouldn’t take any s***. Who had carnivorous ass gentrifying plants. (laughs)
AJ: Well, thank you, and uh, I’m glad that we were able to introduce two distant relatives.
Nick: I’m incredibly gratified and it’s like being told that you’re related to a hero and so I feel, uh, much taller today.
Jean: Next time we meet I’m hugging the s*** out of you.
Nick: Yes, please.
Nick: See you soon fam.
Jean: I’ll see you soon.
Twice Removed is produced by Meg Driscoll, Ngofeen Mputubwele, Chris Neary, Audrey Quinn, and Kimmie Regler. Our senior producer is Eric Mennel. Editing by Jorge Just and Alex Blumberg. Michelle Harris is our fact checker. Music and sound design by Haley Shaw with additional mixing by Martin Peralta. Additional music by Blue Dot Sessions.
Special thanks to Basil George, Colin Fox, Damien Samuels, the Archives on St Helena, CeCe Moore, Andy Kill, Tanja Hammel, Patricia McCracken, Dr. Sean Field, Mark Adams, Cherie Bush, Adam Brown, Eowyn Langholf, Brian Willan, and Andrew Lumby. Voice casting by NYC Vee Oh Coach Shelly Shenoy. Carol Muller is the author of Musical Echoes: South African Women Thinking in Jazz.
Extra thanks to Caitlin Kenney, Stevie Lane, Ale Lariu, Kevin Turner, Kelly Coonan, Katelyn Bogucki and all of the lovely people around Gimlet who helped get this show off the ground. Plus, Harrison Topp, Chris Wright, Rebecca Heymann, Jon Anderson and Terri Raymond. Bonnie Antosh and Jeremy Lloyd sing our jingles.
If you’re a fan of the show, we would love it if you could rate or review us on iTunes. It makes a big, big difference and is really one of the best ways to help others find out about us. So hop into iTunes or your podcast app and let us know what you think.
Twice Removed is a production of Gimlet Media. I’m AJ Jacobs. Thank you for listening, it’s been wonderful getting to know you this season