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News & Features » February 2013 » Kwame Dawes Asks, Are We Related?

Kwame Dawes 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, Kwame Dawes similarly asks, Are We Related?Kwame Dawes


I struggle with family trees. Actually, I do well with the actual family tree—the diagramming of family relations on the page. What I don’t do well is carry inside my head a family lineage that branches out beyond the downward line of immediate progression from great-grandparents to grandmother to father to child, etc. I can’t keep track of cousins, granduncles, and so on. Others are good at this. I am not.

I begin with this caveat because it may explain why, without some driving rationale of practical value, I have not done my family tree. But I have always known something of my family heritage because it is marked by travel and by a complex shifting of geographical spaces and multiple conceptions of “home.” My father, for instance, though a Jamaican, was born in Warri, which is now a city of over 300,000 people in the Delta State of Nigeria. His parents, Laura Ada (née Mills) and Levi Augustus, were teachers/missionaries in Nigeria in the early 20th century. They had tours in Port Harcourt and then in Warri. My grandfather, Levi Augustus Severus Dawes, who died in his seventies in 1943 (almost twenty years before I was born), was born in Sturge Town, Jamaica to Hannah and Richard Dawes. Those two might have lived through the latter part of the period of British indentured slavery that ended in 1838, but their parents, whose names I do not yet have, would most likely have been slaves.

Sturge Town, a mountain community in the hills of St. Ann, was one of the earliest post-slavery ‘free villages’ led by the Baptist Church. These settlements were populated by ambitious, largely-peasant ex-slave families who were committed to education and religion. Hannah and Richard had at least four children. The names I have are Edmund, Levi and Princess. The fourth, I am sure, was James, who apparently traveled as a missionary to Sierra Leone, where he would have died before 1913. He may have been the eldest of the family. There is some evidence that he moved to Ghana, where he may have spent his last days. If this is so, it is possible that he, a Jamaican African, could have come into contact with my mother’s ancestors, who lived in Cape Coast. My mother’s father was a Tevi. Ignacious Tevi. He was an Ewe man and during our childhood he lived in Lomé, the capital of Togo, a Francophone state that borders Ghana and shares the Ewe nation and language with its neighbor. His wife and my grandmother, Amelia Clarke (who we called Mammy), was a Fanti woman who lived in Cape Coast, where we spent many summers under the shadow of the Elmina Slave Castle. The name Clarke is a product of the colonial presence in Ghana. When I think of my mother’s side, I become overwhelmed by the spread of that tree—so many cousins, so many second and third cousins. All seven or eight of my mother’s siblings had their own fair share of children. My mother’s five was a modest number compared to some. I am daunted by the challenge of even beginning to trace those lines.

My Jamaican ancestors were less enterprising in the area of child production. It seems as if they agreed, for at least two generations, that only one sibling would generate offspring. My father was the only one of three siblings to have any children, and he had six. What is startling about my research into my family’s story is the uncanny way in which, even without our conscious awareness of it, our family business has always been in entrepreneurial education. This goes back a long way. Today, my three sisters are either currently active in education or have had careers as teachers, and I am fully ensconced in the business of education.

I started to look into my family history for reasons that have to do with my need to secure full legal evidence of my Jamaicanness. Since I was born in Ghana, my Ghanaianness has never been in dispute legally, even if my inability to speak any of the Ghanaian languages (other than English) has led to some amusingly awkward situations. My Americanness is fully secure; it was settled in a small office in Charleston some years ago. To secure my Jamaicanness, it was not enough to speak patois or to argue that I have always declared myself a Jamaican. I needed legal evidence, and this meant finding birth certificates, records of death, records of paternity and maternity, and much more.

The sources for this information have so far come in letters written by my aunts and my father; papers left by my grandfather; documents, such as wills, dating back to the very beginning of the twentieth century; and a few books, some of which outline not only the history of one or two of my relatives, but flesh out their character, professions, and other details. I also found information in the very helpful newspaper archives at the National Library of Jamaica. I was able to find old documents online from the Yale Library; of interest were the minutes of the Jamaican Baptist Missionary Society, which included my grandfather and grandaunts and their commitment to missionary work. With one sister who is a historian, one who has been working on her memoirs, and another who is a dogged sleuth with a passion for knowing as much as she can, I have been aided greatly in my search, and the family lines are taking shape.

The curious thing is, I am quite convinced that I can search quite deeply into the details and experiences of my family’s history because for a significant part of that history, we were dealing with people who had the good fortune of either being educated or living in communities in which education was valued. The resources in Jamaica are helpful and, as it happens, quite intact. There are still some living relatives who are able to offer insight into certain twists and turns of family history that will help in the work to be done. If you are a Mills or a Dawes from Jamaica, or a Tevi or a Clarke in Ghana, you may be related to me. I suspect, however, that the clearest clue might well be my nose—in all the images I have seen of the grand ones, this lump of glorious clay seems impervious to the incursions of other genes.

KWAME DAWES was born in Ghana and raised in Jamaica. He is the author of fourteen books of poetry and many books of fiction, nonfiction, criticism, and drama, including Gomer’s Song; and editor of several anthologies of poetry, including So Much Things To Say. His debut novel, She’s Gone, won the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. He is the Glenna Luschei Editor of Prairie Schooner and the Chancellor’s Professor of English at the University of Nebraska. He is also the programming director of the Calabash International Literary Festival.

Next week (Tuesday, February 26), Elizabeth Nunez, author of Boundaries and Anna In-Between, joins the discussion with her own “Are We Related?” contribution.

Posted: Feb 19, 2013

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