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February 3, 2017

#5: Jean Grae

Jean Grae is a writer, comedian, producer, chef, and 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.

February 3, 2017
View show transcript

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.

AJ: Because…

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.

 

STING

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.

 

Music

 

Jean: I’m a writer, a producer, a rapper.

 

Music

 

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.

 

MUSIC

 

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.

 

Music

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.

(All laugh)

Jean: Justice will be served.

 

Ok don’t go anywhere. Soon enough we’ll be introducing you two, live on air.

 

Music

 

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.

 

Jean: Mhm.

 

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.

 

Jean: Yeah.

 

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.

 

MUSIC

 

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.

 

MUSIC

 

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.

MUSIC

 

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…

 

[music]

 

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.

 

[MUSIC]

 

  1. 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

 

Dear Sirs,

 

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,

 

  1. M. Henry  

Secretary”

 

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?

AJ: Right.

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,

 

Jean: No.

 

— 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…  

 

Jean: Wow!

 

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.

AJ: (laughs)

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….

 

[music]

 

YON: You just see water and more water.

 

[music]

 

YON: You might see a ship or two. Or three, perhaps.

 

[music]

 

YON: But you can actually travel for five days without seeing anything else.

 

[music post]

 

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?

Jean: Yes.

 

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!

(AJ Laughs)

 

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!

AJ: Yes

Jean: What?!

 

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.

 

His 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.

AJ: No?

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.

 

Jean: Goddammit.

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?

Jean: yes.

 

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.

MUSIC

 

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.

AJ: Interesting!

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.

 

Jean: What?!

 

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.

 

MUSIC

 

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.

 

MUSIC

 

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.

 

[PAUSE]

 

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.

Jean: Hi.

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.

(Nick laughs)

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.

Jean: (laughs)

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.

Jean: Yeah.

AJ: (laughs)

 

Nick: See you soon fam.

Jean: I’ll see you soon.

 

CREDITS

 

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.

 

You can email us at TwiceRemoved@gimletmedia.com. We tweet @TwiceRemoved. We’re also on Facebook. Get in touch! Seriously. We’d really like to hear from you.

 

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

 

#4 Abbi Jacobson

Abbi Jacobson is an actress, comedian, illustrator, and co-creator of Comedy Central’s Broad City. In this episode, we journey through her family’s past: we uncover a 50-year-old unsolved crime, one of the most contentious battles in New York history, and a pioneer in women’s sports. We’ll tell these stories and introduce Abbi to a mystery relative…and another surprise!

January 20, 2017
View show transcript

AJ: I don’t know if you remember, but we met pretty early in your career. It was a show where you would set world records.

Abbi: Yes, yes yes yes yes.

AJ: And my world record it was the longest single sustained note on hand cooing. Which is when you cup your hands… {coo}

Abbi: I remember making that face when you did that before because that’s so good. You’re so good at it.

AJ: Thanks, Abbi.

Abbi: Right?

 

STING

This is Twice Removed, the show that proves we are, in fact, one big family. I’m AJ Jacobs. Right now, I have two people, in this building, in separate studios. And what they do not realize is they’re related. They’re family. One of them… our mystery relative will be hidden away until the end of the episode.

 

Our other … is sitting right here with me…our guest… who is looking around to see if – no you’re not gonna see this mystery relative. Can you introduce yourself please…

 

Abbi: Alright, I’m Abbi Jacobson. I’m a writer actor producer illustrator

AJ: A lot of slashes.

Abbi: I love a good slash.

 

you’re most well-known as co-creator and star of Broad City, the TV show on Comedy Central. And for listeners who might not be familiar with the show, how would you describe it? And shame on them for not being familiar with it.

 

Abbi: Yeah I can’t believe I even have to do this – um. (Laughs) Yeah the – we are about to enter our 4th season. And the show is about 2, 20 something best friends living in New York City.    

Abbi: It’s me and uh Ilana Glazer.

 

You were doing comedy well before the TV show. Broad City was a web series… there was improv. But I’m wondering… what was one of the first jokes or pranks you ever pulled? .

Abbi:  Um…My mom’s dad we would do this thing that was so dumb! he would like smash my face into like the pie.

Abbi: Like right before we were about to eat it. I think we only did it a couple times cause it ruined dessert. It like ruined dessert for everybody. But I remember being like, we’re really committing to this joke because everyone was about to enjoy this thing that now no one will eat, you know? Like we ruined it, but go hard or go home, you know?

So that was your grandpa…

Abbi: Yeah.

That was your mom’s father, Harry. Harry Mehr.

Abbi: Yeah yeah.

And what was he like?

Abbi: He was like a hustler, you know, he was like struggling, he was like 1 of 11. We do-

AJ: 1 of 11 kids.

Abbi: Yeah, we do this thing in the 1st episode of last season, where I put gum on the end of something and try to get Ilana’s keys in the sewer.

AJ: I remember, yeah.

[CLIP FROM BROAD CITY]

Abbi: And that was from, my grandfather used to tell me about how he put gum on the end of a stick and put it down the sewer and get coins that people had dropped.

[CLIP FROM BROAD CITY]

AJ: So he was a real hustler.

Abbi: Yeah, like he would like deliver old, like day old newspapers. Like comin’ up with schemes because they were so poor.

Alright, Abbi… Here’s how Twice Removed works.

Abbi: Okaaay.

We’ve spent the last several months doing research, talking to historians and distant relatives… finding people who are related to you.

Abbi: So cool.

Here we have our official Twice Removed Map. On the far left side, that’s you, Abbi…  On the far right side, is your mystery relative… You can see their name is covered up….

Abbi: They’re here?

They are! They’re in the building in a secure location.

So in between the two of you are forty-three family members, all connected by blood or marriage.

And we’re going to make our way straight through this chain of relatives, one relative to the next… to the next, to the next… all the way to number forty-three … your mystery relative. And along the way, we’ll stop at five of the most interesting people, and tell their stories.

We’ll investigate a fifty year old cold case –

Abbi: whoa.

that’s left your family reeling…

Abbi: What?

we’re gonna hear about another record breaking moment… slightly more notable than my hand coo. Which is hard to believe.

Abbi: Can’t believe it.

As you listen, you’re gonna notice a theme running through these stories… family members who are, I think it’s safe to say… hustlers. We’ve got funny hustles, dark hustles, side hustles… Abbi, your family tree is full of hard workers who do whatever it takes to get the job done.

Abbi: whoa

And at the end of the show… after we’ve made our way to the end of this chain… we’re gonna bring your mystery relative into the studio… for a family reunion like like no other.

Abbi: So cool. I love that hustler thing. I feel like I’m a hustler.   

AJ: I think you are.

Abbi: I’m feeling good this is exciting.

AJ: Yeah?

Abbi: yeah I’m like who is who is this?

AJ: Who do you want it to be?

Abbi: I don’t know do I know them?

AJ: Dwayne the rock Johnson? Do you want it to be Dwayne?

Abbi: Yeah?

AJ: Do you know him?

Abbi: Well now I know it’s not. You’re not gonna – actually MAYBE YOU WOULD SAY WHO IT IS to really throw me off!

AJ: That’s right.

Abbi: It’s probably Dwayne the Rock Johnson he definitely has nothing else going on right now.

AJ: Well he’s family he does it for you.

Okay Abbi, now I’m gonna check in with our mystery – is this our mystery relative? You will not be able to hear – but um – Hello mystery relative. I’m talking to you – I can hear you, but Abbi cannot.

AJ: [laughs]

Mystery Relative: I am freaking out. I can’t handle suspense. Abbi loves surprises. I think she’s loving it right now.

AJ: So what will you do when you first meet your – your long lost relative?

Mystery Relative: I’ll give her a kiss and a hug.

AJ: That sounds nice. All right sir, we’ll be back to you soon.

Sit tight…remember these are your relatives too so enjoy. and  soon you’ll be meeting Abbi Jacobson face to face.

Hopefully the two of you will be filled with delight… or it could be abject horror… you never know… its family. Let’s do it!

[HAND COO!]

(Abbi laughs)

        MUSIC

 

For our first story Abbi, take a look at the map, we are moving along the chain… going two steps from you… first your mom, and then to your late grandfather, Harry.  This is the pie prankster grandpa you told us about at the top of the show.

 

Harry ran an Army Navy Store… and we got the idea he was a bit of an eccentric. He loved to surround himself with weird things. He’d hand out rabbits feet to little kids.

 

At one point he even had a myna bird in the store that would swear at his customers. Did you know about that?

 

Abbi: No but that sounds exactly right.

 

It spoke in voice of your grandmother, his wife. And it would say, “fuck you!” “fuck you!”

 

Abbi: No.

AJ: Yeah.

Abbi: Are you kidding?

AJ: No.

AJ: Well what happened was like – yeah the myna bird –

AJ: Uh he taught it to say “hello Harry” or something. She got annoyed so he brought it to the store and the store employees taught it to say “fuck you.” But it’s in your grandma’s voice.

Abbi: That’s so funny.

 

Like you said, he was a depression era kid… He didn’t grow up with much… So once he finally did have money,  he liked to buy lots of things…And really big things …  it was a source of pride for him.

 

Abbi: yeah.

 

And there’s no better example of this than his love … for huge halloween pumpkins.

 

Abbi: Yes! we had one in my yard growing up.

AJ: Oh you did!

Abbi: Yeah.

AJ: How big was it?

Abbi: It – I remember one year it was huge.  It was like a huge pumpkin that would be in front of like a mall. the night before Halloween is called Mischief night – and I remember these kids smashed it.

AJ: Did they ever the pu- pumpkin smashers?

Abbi: No. But I remember he would do it every year. I think he would do it before – uh he would put it front of the store too.

AJ: Right. Well it’s very interesting. Cause –

 

This brings us to this article from a small New Jersey newspaper, written in 1967. And we have that article. And Abbi could you read this section for me please?

 

Abbi: “Halloween hobgoblins are evidently still on the prowl – despite the fact that trick or treating concluded two days ago. Ghouls with a sweet tooth for pumpkin pie last night stole a 160 pound pumpkin from the backyard of a home at Willlgoos Avenue Pennsauken”

Abbi: cont: that’s where my mom grew up!  

AJ: Exactly. Your grandpa’s house in New Jersey.

Abbi: Yes.

 

All right so the night this article, under the cover of darkness, someone stole his prized 160 pound pumpkin. That’s like a bean bag – size of a bean bag and heavy as a grown man. From what Harry could tell… somebody, or someBODIES, would have needed to lift this massive pumpkin over the chain link fence in the backyard. And then roll it through a field to make a getaway.

 

The article says your grandfather was surprised that someone could even lift it.  Apparently — this is the sad part — his three year old daughter Jackie… that’s your aunt… just stared at the spot where the pumpkin had been… and cried.

 

Abbi: I mean it’s funny and sad.

AJ: Thought so.

 

Well Abbi, the whole thing did not sit right with us. I mean, there were SO many questions…..Who did it?… Why?…  How?… Okay, so there were 3 questions. But still…each of these questions went unanswered for forty-nine years. So we felt we had to do something.  

 

Phone rings.

POLICE: Hello, Pennsauken police.

 

So we called the local police for help.

 

AJ: Hello, my name is AJ Jacobs and I’m recording a story about a theft from 50 years ago.

POLICE:  What?! A story from 50 years ago? No one’s gonna have any info about that.

AJ: Well it was important to the victim, the victim died and we just want to solve it on behalf of him.

Because he would really want it solved, like it was his dying wish,

Abbi: [laughs]  

AJ: well it wasnt exactly but it could have been.

POLICE: ….kay

AJ: It was the theft of a pumpkin, a prized pumpkin,160 pounds

POLICE: What?

AJ: So is that something you see often?

POLICE: No

AJ: Has there been any theft in the last decade

POLICE: Not that I know of.

AJ: So it sorta spiked in the 60s

POLICE: I have no idea.

AJ: If we are trying to solve this, what are some tips

POLICE: I don’t know sir. I have no idea sir.

AJ: Is there DNA testing that could be done?

POLICE: No. No that didn’t exist

           POLICE: Sorry sir i have to put you on hold. (Deep Sigh)

AJ: Okay.

(HOLD MUSIC)

AJ: Don’t think he’s coming back.

 

He didn’t come back. It was a dead end.  We’d have to solve it on our own. So just a few days after Halloween, I recruited my producer Meg and together we started thinking … what would cops do right now? Meg said… get lunch? I agreed. Over lunch, Meg said, maybe we should ask one of the victims…

 

RICK: I woke up in the morning to going out the back door to school – I was in high school at the time. I saw the pumpkin wasn’t there. I do remember jumping over the fence

RICK: looking seeing if i saw any residue of the pumpkin, I looked on the fence to see if there was any orange scrapings, and on the sidewalk. nothing. And My sister was upset, cause she liked climbing on it with her little friends, I think she was 3 or 4 years old. //

RICK: I was just amazed.

 

Abbi: That’s my Uncle Rick.

 

Yes, it’s your Uncle Rick… Harry was his father…

 

Abbi: Yes.

 

Rick runs your grandfather’s Army Navy store now.

 

Abbi: Yes.

 

Abbi, you know your grandfather better than I do, was he the type of guy who would leave a forty nine year old… one hundred sixty pound score… unsettled?

 

Abbi: he probably still thought about it. Every time Halloween rolled around.

AJ: If not every day.

Abbi: Yeah.

 

Your Uncle Rick felt the same way..

 

RICK:  He was someone who liked closure of things if something…was an issue he liked to get to the bottom of it.

AJ: Well I think we’ve got to close this case for your dad. 

RICK: Yep

 

Yep.

 

And Rick gave us our most important lead yet…

 

AJ: what do you think? Who stole the pumpkin and how did they do it?

RICK: Years later I was given the name of a guy… who I knew. this young guy was a troublemaker in the neighborhood, and if somebody was going to steal the pumpkin, I could imagine that he would have been the one.

AJ: have you run into this guy since then?

RICK: No, we don’t really travel  in the same circles. I don’t even know where he is. But if I saw him

AJ: what would you say to him?

RICK: did you steal our pumpkin back in 1967? I would just ask him the question

Abbi: [laughs]

AJ: flat out.

Abbi: [laughs]

Eventually, Rick gave up the name…

 

RICK: His name is Billy [Air Horn]

(PAUSE)

 

AJ: Billy [Air Horn]

AJ: Whoa, that’s a hard last name to spell.

 

I turned to my producer Meg and said… are you thinking what I’m thinking? And Meg said…. Get lunch? Over lunch, Meg said…. maybe we should we try and find

Billy [sound effect].  So we got in the car…

 

MD: So AJ we are just up the street, from our alleged pumpkin thief’s home, how are you feeling right now?

Abbi: [laughing]

AJ: I’m actually quite nervous, I really am, I got a little pitter pat, I got some brow sweat // I want to do right by Harry and Rick, I want to give them some justice.

Aj: and if we don’t solve it, then who is, it’s all on us, it’s on all on our shoulders.

OVER AMBI OF CAR DOOR OPENING: It was go time.

 

AJ: Okay, let’s do it.  

 

So we walk towards the door..               

 

AJ: It is the creepiest house on the street!

Abbi: [laughing]

AJ: And all the shades are drawn that’s – that’s freaking me out. totally dark. Skeletons swinging from a tree. Eesh. It’s got a lot of pumpkins in the yard. All right, well this – oh and a pumpkin flag? Oh my god. I mean this is too perfect. This is insane. He’s got a pumpkin fetish. I mean, even if he doesn’t confess, this is like enough evidence to bury him a thousand times over.

 

(CRICKETS AMBI)

 

We were finally there, in the dark, no one around, only crickets, we were so nervous that we accidentally turned off the recorder for a minute.

 

I knocked on the door. A man with grey hair answered. He was the right age to have stolen a pumpkin in 1967.

 

I said, we’re looking for Billy [sound effect] and he said, I’m Billy [sound effect].

 

AJ: we’re doing one story on this thing that happened 50 years ago. And we were told that you actually might know something about it. Can I ask you?

Billy: Yeah sure, I mean – what’s the –

AJ: It was – believe it or not. There was a 160 pound pumpkin in a yard and it disappeared. Does that ring a bell?

[long pause]

[wind chimes]

 

Abbi: [laughing] What?

 

Billy: I don’t know if I remember rolling a giant pumpkin down the…I don’t – I can’t, I can’t place it.

AJ: So there is something in your mind about a giant pumpkin being rolled.

Billy: Yeah

Billy: I think I remember seeing something in the paper about – it said, Hal – Halloween goblin, goblins strike or something?

AJ: Oh yeah! That was it!

Billy: Is that it, is that it?

AJ: That’s the one!

Billy: Oh my god!

Billy: [Really?”]! Holy geez.

AJ: So you remember that! Wait wait.

Billy: I remember seeing it in the paper.

AJ: Cause that’s the article that started this whole thing –

AJ: Yeah you know –

 

Billy: how bout that?

AJ: we were like – that is so cool.

Billy: Wow.

 

AJ: Exactly.

Abbi: Billy [makes air horn noise]

AJ: Come on. Let’s take the facts right?

 

He remembers the lede of the newspaper article… about a pumpkin theft… from fifty years ago.

 

Abbi: Yeah but he also – the first thing he said was – Do I remember rolling a big pumpkin down a hill?

Abbi: He was like can I still be like tried for this or whatever.

AJ: I know exactly. I – I don’t know about the statute of limitations we should have looked into that.

 

The more we learned about Billy, the more we were convinced we had our guy.

 

Billy: I – got in trouble a lot. Staying out all night.

AJ: What were you doing out all night,

Billy: We waited for the A and P Watermelon truck to come down Highland Avenue. and the guy always slept in the car. So we crawled up inside and we handed watermelons down to everybody and we took off.

AJ: No way.

Stealing watermelons? Or, as many people call them, the pumpkin of fruits

 

I turned to my producer Meg and said are you thinking what I’m thinking? And Meg said……. Get lunch? I agreed. Over lunch.. Meg said…We totally caught our guy! And then she said… we’ve gotta make one last stop.

 

AJ: We are outside Harry’s Army and Navy Store, in New Jersey. And we’re trying to get some closure on the story.

AJ: All right, let’s do it.

 

We decided to leave a 160 pound pumpkin on the stoop of your grandfather’s Army Navy store – the store your uncle Rick runs now. Actually… we couldn’t find a 160 pound pumpkin, so we had to leave four 40 pound pumpkins.

 

Abbi Laughs

 

And we left a note. Dear Rick… I know we can never get back that original 160 pound pumpkin. But, we hope that these will fill that pumpkin-shaped hole in your heart. Signed AJ, Meg, and the Twice Removed Team. PS – we couldn’t find one 160 pound pumpkin so we’re giving you 4, 40 pounders. Hope you understand.

 

Abbi: That’s awesome.

 

AJ: how do you think Harry, your grandfather, would feel about this resolution?

 

Abbi: I think he would feel great. I think he – I mean that’s – thank you for doing that. That’s so nice.

 

OK… We need to take a short break. When we come back… Poop. [pause] Right after these words from our sponsors.

Abbi: Interesting.

AJ: Mmm-hmm.

 

Welcome back to Twice Removed, the show that proves we are in fact one big family.Actually this is interesting… we need to make a correction to the story we just heard. I’m getting word from the mystery guest that we made a mistake… So mystery guest? Remember, Abbi can’t hear you, the rest of us can. Please tell us what we got wrong in the pumpkin theft story?

 

Mystery Guest Response.

AJ: Ohhhh. Interesting. This mystery guest is smart!

Mystery Relative: Yeah I’m a genius.

AJ: Okay. Abbi – said that watermelons are the pumpkins of fruit. Mystery guest tells us that pumpkins

Abbi: are fruit.

AJ: are. fruit.

Abbi: cause of the seeds.

AJ: cause of the se- you knew that too?

Abbi: Well we’re related.

So, Abbi, we’re gonna move past your grandfather, I’m wondering… how much do you know about your deeper family… Like your great-grandparents? And their parents?

 

Abbi: Nothing. That was a thing I was so interested in because – neither of my parents know much about our – like farther family history.

Well let’s hop two stops on the map here to Harry’s grandparents, this is your great-great grandparents…  Anna and Robert were their names.

Now Anna and Robert came to the US from what is now Germany around 1867. They were Jewish… and Germany was hostile place for Jews in that period as in many periods. They probably couldn’t even get full citizenship.

 

So they left. They got on a boat, and eventually settled in…. Detroit, Michigan.

 

Abbi: Hm.

 

Downtown. Not far from where the Detroit Tigers’ baseball stadium is now…

 

Abbi, did you know you have this Detroit connection?

 

Abbi: No.

Abbi: Feels right.

AJ: Have you been to Detroit?

Abbi: Yeah I like it. I feel like there’s definitely a hustle vibe there.

AJ: Totally.

 

While a lot of immigration stories from this era are about hardship… it seems your relatives might have actually arrived at the right time and place. German immigrants were the largest group in Detroit in the 1860s … and the city was still small enough that they found jobs where they could work their way up. Your great great grandfather, Robert, for example, was a candy maker.

 

Abbi: Whoa.

AJ: yeah.

Abbi: That’s cool. (laughs)

AJ: He sold – we looked into it. At the time they did not to sell chocolate so he didn’t – he

Abbi: [sighs] I’m kidding.

AJ: I – Uh but he sold very mint – it was like a mint oriented thing.

Abbi: Cool.

 

But a few years later… a larger group of Eastern European jews flooded into the city, fleeing violence in their home countries..the pogroms..people across the country became less tolerant of immigrants. And around that time, your family left Detroit.

 

They lived in Texas for a stretch. And then, in 1885, the came to New York City… They were the first of your family to have a home here.

 

Abbi: Cool.

And the home where they moved is still standing.

 

Abbi: Really?

 

And we have a picture. Yeah.

 

Abbi: that’s awesome

 

It’s actually just 4 miles from where we are.

 

Abbi: Oh wow cool.

AJ: So –

Abbi: That’s awesome.

 

And it’s interesting because you have the German Jewish side and then you’ve got the Russian Lithuanian Jewish side. And the Germans were sort of the fancy early ones. And the Russians were like these – the struggling newer ones. So you’re a mix.  

 

Abbi: So I am Jewish is what you’re saying. [laughs]

AJ: We’re still confirming that. But we think so. I put it at 90 percent.

Abbi: [still laughing]

 

Well, your great-great grandparents Anna and Robert… they had six kids. And one of them… their daughter, Pearl, is the subject of our next story. Pearl Priest is your second great aunt.  five steps away from you, Abbi…

 

Abbi: Okay.

 

And in the early nineteen hundreds, she married a Providence, Rhode Island business tycoon…  He ran multiple companies… a textile mill, a bottling plant, a sprinkler company… He had hundreds of employees. But in 1926, that business tycoon died. And Pearl, your second great aunt… she took over.

                                            

There’s an article about her in the Providence Evening Bulletin from 1933. As you can imagine, you know it is very dated. The headline is, “Edgewood woman shows she can manage business and home…”

 

Abbi: this I mean – sadly this feels like it could be a headline today.

AJ: There – it’s very relevant.

Abbi: I mean – sadly.

AJ: Absolutely.

Abbi: Still questioning whether women can do it all.

Abbi: No but this is awesome this is 1933.

 

Yeah, and Pearl actually fits into this long tradition of entrepreneurial women who’ve been overlooked.  We talked to a history professor about this…

 

SL: I am absolutely convinced that every one of my students imagines women in the past sitting around with a dust cloth you know, and maybe taking care of the kids and sometimes cooking a meal. And that’s it. And nothing could be further from what women were doing.

 

This is Susan Lewis, she’s a history professor at the State University of New York New Paltz.

 

SL: Let me just start with Betsy Ross.

AJ: Betsy Ross, ok, heard of her.

SL: Yeah Betsy Ross. What’s your picture of betsy ross, like sewing a flag, right?

AJ: Right, the fireplace.

SL: Yeah. Betsy Ross ran an upholstery business.

AJ: Ooh, I just think of her as someone who sews, that’s all i know.

SL: Right right, she’s just sitting there sewing, yeah. No. She probably didn’t sew it herself either.

AJ: Oh really?

SL: Yeah, she’s a businesswoman. She’s going to have somebody who’s working for her sew that flag. And she’s one of the few women in American history who people recognize her name, but they recognize her for something that was not at all what she was doing.

 

Abbi: haha I like Susan.

 

Then there’s Bridget Kennedy, who emigrated from Ireland in 1849.

This is Kennedy as in The Kennedys. JFK’s great grandmother.

SL: The Kennedy family mythology really doesn’t include this story of his great grandmother. But she came to the united states and was widowed. And then starts like a little notions business in Boston.

AJ: Like buttons?

SL: Yeah things like that, buttons, trimmings again, thread.

 

That little business brings in enough money to support the family… enough money for her son to start his liquor business…. A liquor business that turns into an empire… that funds, what would become, a political dynasty…

 

SL: So the Kennedy money begins with this small businesswoman.

 

Abbi: Wow.

 

And Susan says these early female entrepreneurs didn’t consider themselves entrepreneurs. They were just doing what they had to to support their families. And you see that in the article about Pearl – your great aunt. She runs that mill just about as long as her husband ran it, but she says she’s doing it just for his legacy.

 

After eleven years, Pearl finally sold the mill. Her foremen held a banquet in her honor…  They presented her with a plaque praising her courage and generosity in guiding the destiny of the plant… There are thirty-five signatures at the bottom… all of them men.

 

Abbi: That’s awesome. Yeah that’s – I bet that happened a lot. And that – that’s such a bummer in a way but also – exciting to know that this has been going on and now it’s like – yeah. Duh. Women do run the world… Beyonce…

 

AJ: had you heard about your Aunt Pearl?

Abbi: No again, I hadn’t heard about anyone past my grandparents.

 

AJ: One other thing worth noting is that Pearl was very good with money. Right before the stock market crash, in 1929, she sold all of her holdings, and made a fortune.

 

Abbi: Whoa.

 

Yeah, she basically kept the family afloat with that money.

 

Abbi: Wow, Pearl.

AJ: Pearl indeed.

Abbi: Yeah.

 

MUSIC

 

All right, Abbi, I think you’re gonna love this. For our third story today, we’re going only three steps away from Pearl, seven steps from you now, Abbi… Pearl had a daughter… who had a daughter… Who married our next relative… We’re in the 1960s now…  his name is Herbert Rosenfield. And Herbert played a small role in a massive fight over the very future of New York City…

 

He passed away a few months ago, but we talked to his daughter Pat …

 

Pat: First of all, the thing to know about my father is that he was a New Yorker through and through. And loved new york city and whenever he traveled, he would compare everything to New York City. Whether he was in Japan he’d want good New York food. (laugh)

 

Abbi: I do that too.

AJ: Yeah? You go like travel –

Abbi: I’m always like “this is like NY” or this is nothing like NY.

AJ: It’s one or the other.

Abbi: Yeah it’s one or the other.

 

And Herbert was truly an unsung hero of New York City. He was a real hustler. When he saw a problem, he’d dig into arcane city ordinances to find a solution.

 

And he fought for one movement that was was bigger and tougher and more controversial than all the others. It was a movement that got a whole paragraph in his obituary. It reads:

 

“Feeling that there was a serious problem in the neighborhood of people not cleaning up after their dogs, Rosenfield, organized the first community park cleanup event. Rosenfield was active in pushing for what would become the Pooper Scooper Law.”

 

Abbi, have you heard of the Pooper Scooper Law before?

 

Abbi: Not but I’m guessing it’s – you have to pick up after your dog?

AJ: That’s exactly right. Pick up the poop, under penalty of death. Just kidding. It’s a small fine. But still…

Abbi: I was like whoa.

 

And I actually remember this, cause I was a kid at this time… and poop on the sidewalks…. It was so gross and it was a really big problem. Here’s Pat talking about it:

 

Pat: You couldn’t walk in NY without looking down all the time. You to had to really walk very carefully, gingerly around. It was also disgusting, it was like being a field of cow dung.

 

MB: there are very few things that get people’s attention and get them riled up as much as this issue of canine waste.

 

This is Michael Brandow, he’s the author of the book New York’s Poop Scoop Law: Dogs, dirt and Due Process.

 

MB: Some New Yorkers were saying it mattered more to them than the Vietnam War,

 

Abbi: Whoa.

 

MB: you have to remember, I mean, people focus on what they confront daily. The quality of their lives, you know,

AJ: And poop was right there on the sidewalk and –

AJ: Vietnam was 8, 10 thousand miles away.

MB: Absolutely.

 

The book begins in the late nineteen sixties, when several trends were converging to make dog poop a big problem.

 

For one… New York city was in crisis. Businesses were fleeing… the city had no money. Crime was rampant. The population was growing. And, these people moving into the city… they were bringing their dogs with them. The number of dogs in the city doubled.

 

MB: because of the urban crisis. People were getting dogs – bigger dogs all the time, guard dogs for protection because police weren’t able to do that. And so they left bigger messes, right. Great Danes and Dobermans and German Shepherds and Rottweilers.

AJ: Those are big poops.

MB: Yeah and some senators actually blamed dogs for the urban crisis. So they took this one issue of poop and said this is the reason for New York’s downfall.

 

Because New York was broke, there was no money for things like street sweepers. And city officials started throwing out some really strange ideas.  One politician suggested enviro maids… this would be a group of women who would be paid to walk the streets and inspect them for cleanliness. He said it was a perfect plan because women were tidier than men, and could be paid a lot less money.

 

Abbi: Wow that sounds. Cool.

 

The ideas got even stranger….

MB: experimental dog toilets around the city.

AJ: Dog toilets!

AJ: well what does a dog toilet look like – first of all?

MB: It’s basically a hole in the pavement. It’s a Turkish toilet.

MB: and they had a big event with Lots of publicity and celebrity showing up

AJ: I would love to know which celebrities were the dog toilet spokespeople

MB: Oh gosh well // there was a dog toilet installed on W43rd St.- where Toto from the Wiz on Broadway showed up and put his paws in in the concrete to to baptize this new doggy toilet but he sniffed at the thing and just walked away – he wasn’t interested. And actually they filled it in shortly thereafter.

 

And the strangest idea of all….

MB: The – the idea of making

MB: people actually bend over and handle feces and pick it up and bring it home – that was so bizarre, it was so unheard of. No one had ever done that before. // It was a very weird idea and and most people laughed at it.

 

And that’s why it was such a big deal when the city council proposed a new law that would require all dog owners to pick up after their dog or risk a fine… the Poop Scoop Law. The one your relative was involved in. This proposal ignited a fight that split the city in two… brother against dog-owning brother.

 

On one side of the fight: Dog owners. They really freaked out about the idea of having to clean up after their pets.

AJ: I mean you have a crazy quote in your book,

AJ: “Like the Jews of Nazi Germany, we citizens including the old and infirm are being humiliated by being forced to pick up excrement from the gutter.”

MB: Mm hm.

AJ: That –

MB: That, that had a lot of support.

AJ: To me, that is the worst metaphor –

MB: It’s horrible.

 

Abbi: There’s a way to make the point without bringing in these terrible metaphors right?

AJ: It seems that way.

Abbi: It seems that way.

AJ: Yeah I think Nazi metaphors should be used very sparingly.

Abbi: right? What’s going on?

AJ: Yeah.

 

To the dog owners… this law was a sign of things to come…

 

MB: this is a, a carefully planned step towards banning dogs from New York City. // even the idea – you could imagine the terror – the idea that they’re gonna take our dogs away.

AJ: It’s – so yeah, first they come for the poop, and then they come for the dog.

MB: Exactly, so it got polarized.

AJ: I mean it sounds like the second amendment – it’s like first they like –

MB: Exactly.

AJ: try to regulate and then they’re gonna take our guns away.

MB: Exactly.

 

On the other side of this fight were people annoyed with the dog poop. People labeled “anti-dog.” Like your relative…. The unsung hero… Herbert Rosenfield.

 

So at first, he tried confronting his neighbors. Here’s his daughter, Pat:

Pat: He would say, “pick that up there is a garbage can. We made sure there were garbage cans here. You throw it right there. It’s very easy.

AJ: And what was that like for you when he would confront people on the street and tell ‘em to put –

PR: Mortifying. Mortifying. Absolutely mortifying,

PR: I just thought, “Oh, daddy! Come on! We can pick it up and throw it away.”

 

When that didn’t work, he got others on board. He organized a group called Come N Clean to scrub the sidewalks near Gramercy Park and pick up litter.

 

And Herbert’s group… it started a trend. Anti-Dog groups started popping up everywhere… They said that dog poop was putting new york’s children in danger. Their most vocal advocate was a TV star named Fran Lee, who went on an anti-poop publicity tour.

 

Merv: she’s a delightful woman I understand and pleasure to welcome her to our show, consumer advocate and television personality Fran Lee. (Entrance Music)

 

This is Fran on national television–the Merv Griffin show.

 

Fran: I love dogs, I hate the owners. I really love animals, everyone out there knows that but I hate what their owners have allowed to happen to my beautiful city.

 

She went on talk shows..

 

HOST: we understand you’re upset that NYC streets have been turned into a scatalogical minefields.

FRAN: the people that for, I don’t know, some reason seems to think the ambrosia from their dog’s bottom is so precious they want to bottle it.

 

Call in shows..

 

Fran: You people have to be prepared to do what I do, I take my camera and I take a picture of the dog defecating either in the hallway, on the rugs, out in front of your window//

FRAN: now be prepared to be get a punch on your nose. I have taken a cardboard with a piece of poop on it, chased a woman and put it on her hat.

 

(abbi laughs)

 

So things reach a fever pitch at a city council hearing in nineteen seventy two.

 

One former councilwoman said it was a wild hearing, raucous. It was difficult to keep order. Dog owners were arriving hysterical. Fran Lee was there talking about rare diseases. And they just gave up because they couldn’t get anything done.

 

The proposal died.   

 

Six years pass… The World Trade Center opens…  Wheel of Fortune premieres on TV… Clapton goes solo… and then… A new mayor is elected. And the law gets passed, the poop scoop law, almost in secret, by the state. Putting an end to a decade of mud slinging.

 

And New York City was never the same …

 

MB: in a way, in a way, it was really important first step towards urban renewal, it didn’t matter if got a federal bail out, if people didn’t want to live here and corporations didn’t want to work here, you had to clean the sidewalks.  

AJ: it was literally like a first step in new york’s come back.//

MB: It really was. And I don’t think there’s anything that made dogs more socially acceptable in cities than than this custom.

AJ: So it saved dogs.

MB: It did!

AJ: It saved – saved New York and saved the dogs.

 

Abbi: Wow yeah I guess you don’t think about that but it’s very important.

AJ: It’s very important. I mean – we live in a New York City that is so different from the one that your ancestors-

Abbi: Yeah.

AJ: lived in 140 years ago and – and one of the big things is it’s so much cleaner.

Abbi: Yeah.

AJ: Because of your relative.

Abbi: Wow.  

 

So Abbi, I’m wondering how you feel about the different members. Are they the kind of family you’d want?

 

Abbi: I do like that they’re very – they seem very like committed to who they are. They’re all characters

AJ: As – as you say you gotta go big or go home.

Abbi: Yup yup.

Abbi: Pearl feels like that’s – that’s like the coolest discovery to me. just in terms of like strong women in my family and I knew my grandfather was like a very strong person she’s not that far removed from him so that feels like oh I feel like there’s like a lineage of that.

AJ: Right.

Abbi: But maybe there’s a linea – maybe I’m just conning everybody.

AJ: Okay.

Abbi: So that idea of strong women. Settle in.

Abbi: Are you gonna crush it right now?

AJ: Nope. Another strong woman.

Abbi: Nope, okay.

 

Um so this is it! We’ve made it! Our last story before your mystery relative, Abbi.

 

For our last story, we’re moving pretty far down the chain, thirty-three people away from you, Abbi, to meet your next relative: her name is Ella Mae Riley.

 

She was born in nineteen twenty… and grew up very poor, during the peak of the Great Depression. Her father was white and her mother was native american.

 

Abbi: Wow.

 

She lived in a very small town called Ketchum in Oklahoma, at the fringes of the Dust Bowl. She didn’t have much… but she was good at basketball.

 

Sally: She would take cloth and start with a little ball and make the ball bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger til it got to be the size of a basketball.

 

That’s Ella Mae’s daughter, Sally.

 

AJ: So A ball of rags?

Sally: A ball of rags. They made a hoop.

AJ: What was the hoop made of?

Sally: Probably grape vine. Back then, grape vine was, you’d cut it off

 

Abbi: Huh.

 

and that’s what you smoked and got in trouble with

 

Abbi: Wow.

 

but I guess she decided to wind it around and make a hoop out of it.

AJ: That’s how she learned to play basketball?

Sally: That’s how she learned to play basketball. She told me, “The minute that ball went out of my hands, I knew it was going to go in that hoop.” She never missed a shot.

 

In fact, when we were looking into Ella Mae, we came across this:

 

[AJ shows Abbi a paper]

 

So we have this for you. It is a Ripley’s Believe it or Not illustration featuring your relative, Ella Mae Riley. She scored thirty eight points during a high school basketball game,

 

Abbi: whoa.

 

and no one else scored at all… those points were the whole game. Amazing, right?

 

Back then, Ripley wasn’t just a oddities museum in Times Square. It was a syndicated feature in newspapers all across the country. And it was massive.

 

This drawing of your relative Ella Mae? It would have been seen by sixty MILLION people.

 

Abbi: Wow.

AJ: Yeah.

Abbi: That’s crazy.

AJ: Even more than Broad City.

Abbi: Just a little bit. Just a little bit more. (Laughs)

 

That kind of exposure would change anyone’s life, especially a high school girl from rural Oklahoma.

 

Abbi: Yeah.

 

But it only took one person… the right person… to see it. And that person was a woman named Helen Stephens.  

 

Sally: Helen Stephens came to Ketchum, and said “I want you to be on my basketball team, we’re gonna tour the United States.”

 

Abbi: should I be writing this movie now?

AJ: I think it is – I mean wait till you hear it?

Abbi: Am I playing Ella Mae?

AJ: I think so she’s your relative.

Abbi: Guys!! Ok keeping going.

AJ: Done. All right.

 

In the late nineteen thirties, Helen Stephens was one of the most famous women athletes in the world… like Serena Williams. Someone like that showing up in Ketchum was a big deal.

 

So, even though this story is about your relative Ella Mae, I do want to pause just for a minute to talk about Helen…. Because Ella Mae possibly wouldn’t even be Ella Mae without Helen… and, if we’re talking about hustlers, Helen was really one of the best.

 

She made her name at the nineteen thirty six Berlin Olympics… the ones where Jesse Owens showed up the Nazis by breaking three world records and winning four gold medals in track and field.

 

SHARON: And she ran about a second shy of Jesse Owens’ speed.

 

Abbi: Whoa.

 

That’s Sharon Kinney Hanson… she wrote a book about Helen – the mentor of your relative.

 

Helen was such an incredible athlete that it was easier for Olympic officials to believe that she was a man than that a woman could be so powerful… And so they did something unprecedented… they forced Helen to undergo a invasive exam to prove she was a woman.

 

Helen didn’t flinch… She did the test… competed… and broke two world records.

 

But the accusations – they didn’t stop. And… when an American magazine questioned her gender again, she sued the magazine… won… and used the money to start her own basketball team.

 

BEAT

 

Abbi: Wow!! That’s that’s amazing. This is definitely a movie. Wait that’s insane.

AJ: Oh yea.

Abbi: And also I guess totally believable in the world that we live in where they insisted she needed to be a man to be successful. That’s a thing.

AJ: I know that is nuts right?

Abbi: What the fuck?! Sorry you can bleep all my curses.

AJ: we enjoy your curses.

Abbi: (Laughs)

 

So that’s the woman who went to Oklahoma and asked your relative, Ella Mae Riley, to come travel across the country playing basketball with her.

 

Sally: And mother said, “Let’s go! Hop on the bus, Gus!”

 

MUSIC

 

In the late 1930s, Ella Mae’s team was part of a sports phenomenon called “barnstorming.”

 

It’s where baseball or basketball teams would travel all across the country as kind of small town performances.

AJ: So – did you see League of their Own?

Abbi: Um yeah.

AJ: So this –

Abbi: I’ve seen it a lot. [singing] “We are the members offfff the all Amer-“ I know I love that movie.

AJ: Wow!

Abbi: That’s what it felt like when she said “get on the bus, gus.”

AJ: Exactly this is – this is the basketball version.

 

But this is crazy, in baseball, women’s teams played other women’s teams. Ella Mae’s team of barnstorming basketballers only played men.

 

Abbi: Whoa.

AJ: so better than a league of their own.

Abbi: Yeah, that’s amazing.

 

They were called the Olympic Co-Eds, and they even had their own fight song:

 

SHARON: “We are the Olympic Co-Eds, Co-Eds. We never, never see a bed. We never know where we’ll be next. [and under] Maybe we’ll end up in Texas.

 

Their uniforms were red, white, and blue silk… with the Olympic rings embroidered on the sleeves.

 

Sharon: Just so we can give a show? [comes up in the clear] So if you like to see us play. We’ll be back another day”. [PAUSE] Not so hot.

AJ: Very hot. I loved it!

(Abbi laughs.)

 

So each member of the team had a shtick.

 

SHARON: A sure shot-putter from Chicago. An aviatrix. A ski star, a female wrestler, a baseball star. And a Native American. “Little Chief Riley”.

 

“Little Chief Riley”… That was what they called Ella Mae Riley. She was billed as, quote, “a little Cherokee Indian girl from Oklahoma.”

 

She was the smallest on the squad, but the fastest, and the highest scorer. And… as one article described her… a breath of beauty from Oklahoma who drew plenty of cheers from the gentlemen who had left their wives at home.

 

AJ: [laughs] I like your face. You look skeptical

Abbi: It’s like, what?? Okay.

 

The Co-Eds traveled all across the country, driving something like forty two thousand miles in five months. All six women plus a bodyguard named Hambone crisscrossed the U.S… and there’s a photo.

 

Abbi: Aw. I do love how they’re all dressed. like some of the women are wearing ties.

Abbi: Yeah they’re wearing like suits almost. It’s Cool.

 

So these games were hugely popular, drawing crowds as big as five thousand people…that’s ten times the population of the town Ella Mae grew up in.

 

And those huge crowds? They could get drunk and rowdy…

 

SHARON: There would be some heckling from the audience. Some appreciated the fact that they were playing the game and some of the guys thought that women were out of line by even trying.

 

But these women?  

 

Once one of the Co-Eds punched the referee in the face

 

Abbi: That’s awesome.

AJ: Isn’t that great?

Abbi: Yeah.

AJ: Well I don’t know if it’s great but.

Abbi: Yeah that’s great. I would like to think that they deserved it.

AJ: There you go. Probably.

 

Ella Mae spent five months traveling with the Co-Eds…  She returned to Ketchum right around her twentieth birthday.

 

[pause]

 

So right now Abbi, you know more about this chapter of your distant cousin’s life than anyone else who knew her: friends, neighbors, family… even her daughter Sally.

 

Sally: Let me tell you. My mother didn’t talk. I didn’t even know any of this until later on in life. She never talked about it. What she would say is, “I don’t want my laundry on the streets.”

 

Ella Mae only talked about it once. Back in nineteen ninety seven, a reporter in Oklahoma happened to find her Ripley’s article like we did. She said her season with the Co-eds was the experience of a lifetime.

 

[music]

 

Now sometimes a big break is a change or a turning point. But sometimes it’s just that: a break in the monotony, a respite from hardship. And that’s kind of what Ella Mae’s season with the Co-Eds was. Because the later part of her life… wasn’t easy.

 

Sally: She was an extrovert in the public but she was really an introvert. She really had uh low self esteem.

AJ: Why do you think that is, I mean, she seems amazing?

Sally: She had some tragedy in her life. She had several marriages that didn’t work and she’d roll over in her grave if I told you how many, so I’m going to leave that out. It was more than Elizabeth Taylor let me tell you that. And they weren’t good uh, they weren’t good marriages. She’d had a poor picker when it came to men…Her three children, they all passed away before her…

AJ: Three of the four siblings passed away before her. Oh, that’s heartbreaking.

Sally:  Yes. My sister lived to be 39 and my brother was 38. Her last child died as an infant…she was never the same after that.

 

[MUSIC]

 

As the only surviving child, Sally is kind of the keeper of Ella Mae’s memory. And so even though she can’t forget the painful parts of her mom’s life, she focuses instead on the good. She thinks about her mom’s fearlessness, her readiness to always take a chance, or throw a punch, and the courage it took for her to leave Ketchum and follow a dream.

So, you choose the moments you want to remember people by, and that’s exactly what Sally’s done.

 

I love this part –  Sally designed Ella Mae’s tombstone… and sandblasted on the back of it is the drawing of Ella Mae in the Ripley’s feature… Etched in stone, she’s forever poised… ready to shoot.

 

Abbi: that’s awesome. That’s a great drawing.

AJ: Isn’t that a great –

Abbi: Yeah.  

AJ: Oh as an illustrator exactly.

Abbi: Yeah. Yeah that’s really cool.

AJ: one thing that caught my attention was that there were people who had trouble believing women were even capable of doing these things. Like

Abbi: Yeah I mean I’m not totally surprised at that theme running through history. Just cause that’s – it’s – I think it’s still a thing that sadly it’s always a – before any – any career it’s like you’re a female blank. what’s it like being a female writer? What’s it like being a female actor?  Where it’s never you’re a male writer. I mean I think it’s changing hopefully. It’s obviously getting better than it was for all these women that came before us

AJ: You know what you gotta do is take the – inspiration from the co-eds and just punch them in the face.

 

MUSIC

 

After the break… we reveal Abbi’s mystery relative. Who is sitting patiently in the other room…

Ilana: Oh my God, I can’t take it. I can’t fucking take it.

 

After these words from our sponsors.

 

Welcome back to Twice Removed. Ok! Abbi. We have made it. 57 steps later… we’ve met entrepreneurs, pumpkin thieves, and athletes… We are now ready to meet your mystery cousin.

 

How are you feeling?

 

Abbi: Yeah I mean I can’t wait, the suspense is killing me here.

 

Alright. Mystery Relative… you can come on in

 

REAX

 

Mystery Relative… come on in.

 

AHHHHH!!!

 

AJ, cont: Oh my goodness!

Mystery Relative: Hey there.

Abbi: Hey.

Mystery Relative: I knew you knew.

Abbi: Oh I did know who that was gonna be.

AJ: you did?

AJ: How did you know?

Abbi: I just thought – who else would come in this early for me?

Abbi: And then the fruit thing I was like – Ilana’s gonna be the person.

Mystery Relative: yes.

AJ: Oh you recognized the the – cause you – you know that she’s like a botanical genius.

Mystery Relative: laughs

Abbi: Well I just was like I bet they’re gonna find a connection between us.

AJ: Of course, your mystery relative is your partner in crime… the co-creator of broad city… Ilana Glazer.

AJ: Ilana… hearing about your common ancestors… were there any of those that reminded you of Abbi?

Mystery Relative: Yeah um ugh I loved hearing more about Harry.

Abbi: well you’re closer to Ella Mae than I am.

Mystery Relative: Yeah that’s so weird right? I was like we have like Native American – it really did highlight for me your main theme which is like we’re all family, incredible. But also literally all family is like – it’s so – congratulations on the project-

AJ: Oh thank you.

Mystery Relative: cause it’s truly mind blowing

Abbi: Yeah I mean the things I relate to especially in the women and my grandfather. Are like the hustle aspects. I think are the same things for Ilana like how the show was born

Now we do have one more surprise for you guys. We found one more common ancestor between you two that we did not share. She’s 50 steps away from you Ilana, through blood and marriage…  and a few more away from you Abbi… 53 to be exact. It’s someone I think you’ll be excited to have a family connection with. Here is a message from her.

 

PLAY MESSAGE

 

Molly: Hi Abbi, hi Ilana, this is your cousin Molly Shannon! How are you guys?

Abbi and Mystery Relative: awwwww.

Molly: I just wanna say you’re two of the funniest –

Mystery Relative: awww.

Molly: Women around and I’m so happy that I’m related to her.

Mystery Relative: I love her!

Molly: Abbi this is so weird but I heard a rumor that you dressed up as – Mary Katherine Gallagher when you were little.

 

Abbi: I was just gonna say that!

Mystery Relative: Yes Molly Shannon.

Mystery Relative: awww.

 

Molly: Is that true?

 

Molly: So funny. I dressed up as Abbi Jacobson when I was little too – so

 

Mystery Relative: awwww!!!

 

Molly: what a coincidence! But seriously, I just wanna say I love Broad City. I think you two are so talented –

 

Mystery Relative: [sighs] that’s so cool.

 

Molly: I love you. I can’t wait for our next family reunion! Bye!!

 

[END MESSAGE]

 

Mystery Relative: She is so cute it’s –

Abbi: She really is so cute.

Mystery Relative: insane.

AJ:Ttell me about as a kid you dressed up as

Abbi: Mary Katherine Gallagher for 8th grade. My 8th grade Halloween.

AJ: Mary Catherine Gallagher of course is the spastic catholic high school student that Molly Shannon played on Saturday night live.

Abbi: I was really into SNL growing up. That was like my thing. I don’t now I I – impersonated her all the time. Yeah I wore like the- Catholic outfit. She was just so wild.

she would always like – break a whole like set of –

Mystery Relative: [laughs hard]

Abbi: bathroom  stalls or something? she was so committed to the character.

 

OK, for the record. Here’s how you guys are related…Ilana you are Abbi’s grandfather’s sister’s son’s wife’s grandfather’s brother’s daughter’s husband’s nephew’s grandfather’s sister’s great grandson’s wife’s grandmother’s sister’s daughter’s husband’s brother’s wife’s uncle’s son’s wife’s sister’s son’s wife’s grandfather’s brother’s son’s daughter!!!

(With abbi and Ilana laughs)

Mystery Relative: damn.

Abbi: Oh our moms are gonna be so happy.

Mystery Relative: Yeah they’re gonna love this.

Abbi: Yeah.

Mystery Relative: this podcast.

Abbi: yeah they’re huge podcast heads

Mystery Relative: honestly i’m gonna show them how to download it because they’re gonna love it.

Abbi: yeah.

 

AJ: So now that you know you’re family, does it change?

Abbi: I don’t know if we can do the show anymore

Mystery Relative: Yeah, We certainly can’t keep having sex.

AJ: (Laughs)

Mystery Relative: we certainly can’t keep having sex, now it’s weird, not just running the business together and having sex, but now that we know we’re family, its weird.

Abbi: yeah, its wooh.

(MUSIC)

 

Bonus: Lydia & Barnabas

Sometimes the best way to tell a story, a really strange story, is with a song. So here’s the story of an undead husband, a husband on the run and a wife named Lydia.

January 17, 2017
View show transcript

Hi, I’m AJ Jacobs. And this is Twice Removed, the show that proves we are, in fact, one big family. Well, sort of. Our next episode comes out later this week… it’s about comedian and actor and star of Broad City, Abbi Jacobson. But in the meantime, I wanted to play you a little bonus story that was left over from our last episode, about Nazanin Rafsanjani….

 

See, the tools we use to find and research stories on Twice Removed are often analytical. They come from the world of academia and science. We use DNA and genealogical records.

 

But, sometimes those tools are inadequate.  There are cultures and people whose stories you can’t tell by just finding birth records or newspaper clippings because… often times…  those things didn’t exist. One thing that does exist, however… is Oral Tradition.

Oral tradition often comes in the form of poetry and music. People have used songs and poems to tell important stories from the very start.  They’re easy to remember and to pass along.  They’re catchy. One example of this is the American folk song. There are songs written about George Washington’s funeral in the 1790s. Stories of the Underground Railroad and slave revolts have been passed down through music. Woody Guthrie wrote songs about big historical achievements like the building of the Columbia River Dam. One of the top five songs about hydro electric engineering.

So with that in mind… here’s a story … and a little something extra… from the family of Nazanin Rafsanjani….

(From Episode)

Looking back our family tree now… We get to a couple named Lydia and Barnabas Cooke. They were married in the early 1800s. Barnabas was a war of 1812 veteran.

Now, when Lydia met Barnabus, she was a widow. She told him her first husband was lost at sea… literally. This was a time when people were not infrequently lost at sea. But a few years into the marriage, Barnabus notices Lydia sneaking off into the woods at night. One night, he follows her outside… and comes to find out… Lydia’s first husband… is very much alive!

Barnabus up and leaves, moves to West Virginia. Then, 30 years later, another twist. He gets a letter in the mail. Turns out, Lydia is now claiming Barnabas is dead, and trying to claim his War of 1812 pension.

Now this story… it’s the stuff of old folk songs. There’s un-dead men… a sneaky lady. So we asked one of our favorite bands, Lowland Hum, to help us out… to turn the ballad of Lydia and Barnabus into a song. This is their take on the story of your relatives…

[Song]

Fair Lydia lost her love to the sea
Thrown overboard at the whim of a storm
Though the account was cloudy

Barnabas Cooke, as good as a man can be
Married our widow fair
Built the homestead at the edge of the trees

Don’t you love a quiet house
Content by the fire and your quiet spouse?
Books in the evening while she goes out walking
Returning with arms full
Aster and sweet fern, elder and blue berry, boneset, marsh marigold

Late one night Barnabas woke to find
His bed cold and empty
The high moon big-bellied
He followed a lantern’s glow
To the heart of the wood where sweet Lydia lay in the arms of a man unknown

Was it a ghost or could this be
The first blush of Lydia’s youth who had slept on the floor of a hungry sea

Run, good man, run, as far as you can flee
At night by the blaze of a fire you will gaze ’til the heat forces you to sleep

Thirty years had passed when the letter found our man
Lydia’s wearing black, mourning her Barnabas
Pity the widowed bride
His veteran’s pension will pay her rent and afford her a modest life

Run, good man, run. Carry yourself to the judge,
Tell him the truth that the wife of your youth claims you dead but you are alive.
Just like her sailor and how many other men
Drawn by her siren eyes

Sleep good man sleep
You’re finally out of her reach
Slouch by the fireside
Walled in on left and right
Books and the embers bright
Lydia visits in dreams soft and distant like haze on the morning
We’ll be back with our mystery relative, right after this  break.

Hosted by

A.J. Jacobs

A.J. Jacobs is the author of several New York Times bestsellers, including The Year of Living Biblically and Drop Dead Healthy. He is the editor at large at Esquire and appears regularly on NPR's "Weekend Edition Saturday." His upcoming book It's All Relative is about family history, which was also the topic of his recent TED talk. He's also your cousin.

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