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News & Features » February 2013 » Courttia Newland Asks, Are We Related?

Courttia Newland 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. This week, Courttia Newland similarly asks, Are We Related?


In The Gospel According to Cane, my protagonist, Beverley Cottrell, is reunited with a young man who claims to be her long lost son, and was abducted twenty years ago. While I have never endured such harrowing circumstances, the novel is in part an allegory for the history of African Diaspora peoples, wrenched from the continent of our birth, our ‘Motherland,’ and our diverse attempts at reclaiming some kind of ancestral and familial past. The nature of our shared history frequently means a personal family tree can become difficult to trace; branches have often been snapped, re-routed, forced to dive underground only to emerge elsewhere, sometimes on the other side of the globe. My own family, as much as I know, are spread between Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad, America, Canada, Scotland, and the UK, where I was born. The abductions that took place during the centuries-long Trans-Atlantic slave trade mean I may never truly discover my ancestral heritage and learn precisely where and from what tribe in Africa my family came.

Here’s what I do know, gleaned from a phone conversation and emails with my mother. She didn’t know much about her father’s family, and she can’t remember anything about her paternal grandparents, the Dennys (my mother left Barbados for England when she was 9 years old). The Dennys came from the Parish of St. Peter, Barbados, in an area called The Whim. There is a road there called Denny Road, which is claimed to be named after the family. Some family members still live there. Several uncles and aunts went to live in Canada and America, and of course my branch of the family came to England. It’s rumoured there’s a large extended family in Montreal and Toronto.

My grandmother, Altina Denny, and my grandfather Roosevelt Denny, had the same surname before they married, and so my grandmother kept her maiden name. Tina’s family, as she (my grandmother) was known to all, came from the Six Mens and Speightstown area of St. Peter. She grew up with her brother Emmanuel and sister Elmina in a small house on Sand Street, Speightstown. On a recent visit to Barbados, we found that the chattel house they had lived in was still there. My great-grandmother was called Meta Denny, and my yet unnamed grandfather was a tailor who ran his shop from the house on Sand Street.

My great-grandmother had several brothers and sisters, whose names have mostly been lost. The aunts my mother remembers (and I had the great privilege to meet) were Ethel Archer (who was unmarried and deaf) and Ruby Moore (known to everyone as Aunt B). Aunt B had three daughters, one of whom, Vonnie, lives in New York, and I’ve never met. Another aunt was the mother of my cousins Margaret, Thelma and Joyce. Joyce recently passed away in Speightstown, Barbados. Margaret and Thelma now live in New York.

Some of the brothers, my great-uncles, are rumoured to have immigrated to Trinidad. One was called Alvin (or Olvin, not sure) and the other Archibald. There may have been others, but my mother didn’t know them.

It’s alleged that my maternal great-great-grandfather was a Scottish man called Samuel. My mother doesn’t recall his last name. My great-great-grandmother’s name has also been lost, but she came from the St. Peter’s area (and was reportedly of Indian origin). A few years ago, on a family trip to Barbados, my mother made numerous attempts to find our family history through the records kept on the island, but she found it difficult and came to a dead end.

Do these names mean anything to you? Perhaps you could help us fill in the blanks. It’s possible that we could be related! If so, please contact me at urbanfactor@gmail.com. I look forward to hearing from you!


COURTTIA NEWLAND’S first novel, The Scholar, was published in 1997. Further critically acclaimed works include Society Within, Snakeskin, The Dying Wish, Music for the Off-Key, and A Book of Blues. He is coeditor of IC3: The Penguin Book of New Black Writing in Britain and has had short stories featured in many anthologies. He was nominated for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the CWA Dagger in the Library Award, the Alfred Fagon Award, and the Frank O’Connor Award. His latest anthology, coedited with Monique Roffey, is Tell Tales 4: The Global Village, and his latest novel is The Gospel According to Cane.

Next week (Tuesday, February 19), Kwame Dawes, author of She’s Gone and Gomer’s Song, joins the discussion with his own “Are We Related?” contribution.


Posted: Feb 12, 2013

Category: Are We Related? | Tags: , , ,