Elizabeth Nunez Asks, Are We Related?
Each month, Akashic invites contributions to our featured blog from our roster of fabulous authors. This February, in celebration of Black History Month and in conjunction with the long-awaited paperback reissue of Nowhere Is a Place, Bernice L. McFadden inaugurated our feature with the wonderful conclusion to her book. Since then, Courttia Newland and Kwame Dawes have contributed stories of their own family history. This week, Elizabeth Nunez similarly asks, Are We Related?
It is unlikely that I am related to Bernice L. McFadden, though I wish I were. I am a big fan of her work, but the truth is that I am the second of the huge extended Nunez family to immigrate to the US, and the first to have a child, Jason Harrell, who can trace his family’s roots in America, my son’s father being African American.
My great uncle, Nathaniel Nunes, preceded me. He immigrated to the US sometime around the turn of the 20th century. He was a dentist in Harlem, New York, and died penniless and childless in Harlem Hospital, where he had been housed for close to a decade. I say he was penniless, but he owned several beautiful brownstones in Striver’s Row (which today can fetch prices in the millions), all of them appropriated by Harlem Hospital to pay his living expenses.
Great Uncle Nat was a bachelor, though there are reports from people who knew him that he was a ladies’ man. So perhaps I am wrong and my son is not the first native-born American in our family. No one has turned up yet, however, to displace him in that ranking.
When I immigrated to the US, my grandfather, Antonio Nunez, pleaded with me to visit Great Uncle Nat, his younger brother, in Harlem Hospital. I remember how good Great Uncle Nat looked, strong and handsome—clearly not in full possession of his mind, but enough to be suspicious of my visit. Had I come to lay claim to his fortunes?
Great Uncle Nat was famously suspicious of our motives for contacting him. He was in the land of milk and honey where the roads were paved with gold, and we were in the bushes of a tropical island under the rule of the British government. He was certain that any contact we made with him was to beg him for some of his American money. So Great Uncle Nat rarely communicated with any of his family, which was why he died alone and was buried in a grave none of us can locate.
You may have noticed that my grandfather’s surname and his brother’s surname are not the same. There is a Z at the end of my grandfather’s surname and an S at the end of Great Uncle Nat’s surname. My great-great-grandfather, the father of both my grandfather and great uncle, also had an S at the end of his surname. He was Antonio Nunes, a Portuguese man from Madeira. He immigrated to Trinidad in the 1840s and married a freed African slave, Anne Rose Dormer. Yes, married, though white men in those days did not see the necessity of marrying their black female partners. Antonio Nunes died early in the marriage and Anne Rose Dormer raised their two sons alone: Nat, who became a dentist, and Antonio, my grandfather, who became a school headmaster.
So why was my grandfather’s surname different from both his father’s and brother’s surname? This is the story my father told me. My grandfather had removed the S on his surname after an argument over the poem by John Keats, “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,” which all elementary school children in the Anglophone Caribbean were required to memorize. The problem was that, in his poem, Keats had made a mistake. It was not the “stout Cortez” with his “eagle eyes” who first “star’d at the Pacific”; it was the great Vasco Núñez de Balboa. Miffed that the British colonial ministry of education would allow children in the West Indies to be confused by Keats’s error and credit Hernando Cortez with discovering the Pacific Ocean instead of crediting Vasco Núñez de Balboa, my grandfather, the punctilious school headmaster, promptly changed his name to Nunez in protest. All his children followed suit, except his second son, Winston, who was light-skinned and already under the wings of Presbyterian missionaries from Canada who promised to take him there. In Canada, my uncle found it easier to pass as a white man with the Portuguese name Nunes rather than with the Hispanic name Nunez. He became a famous minister of an extensive evangelical congregation, married a white Canadian woman, and had “white” Canadian children. Neither his wife nor his children ever set foot in Trinidad during my grandparents’ long life.
So there it is: I can trace the reason for my Hispanic name to an error in a poem by the great English poet John Keats.
Posted: Feb 26, 2013