London Day 3 and 4

Wednesday March 4

Today the National Archives- a long haul.  First, a walk to the Russell Square Underground, taking the Piccadilly Line changing at Hammersmith to the District Line and 40 minutes later arriving at Kew Gardens.  Luckily, there were signs directing me to the National Archives and to a street of interesting terraced houses.


In order to view documents, I was obliged to get a reader’s ticket which took some time.  Then, I worked with a librarian to navigate the databases.  My “French” grandmother whose family had lived in Martinique and Saint Lucia since 1690 had actually been a British citizen.  In the early 1900’s, she attended school in England with several of her sisters.  I was looking for the name of the school and evidence of her citizenship.

The librarian told me those papers if they existed would be in Saint Lucia not in the National Archives.  He suggested I go through Saint Lucian slave records since my relatives, who had been military officers, lawyers, and judges, most likely had slaves.  A bitter pill to swallow.  I spent the afternoon sadly perusing the available information and came across an 1822 protocol for selling slaves:

The slaves attached to any plantation are always to be sold together.  Personal slaves, unattached to plantations are always to be sold in such a manner as that the same person must become the purchaser of all such of the said personal slaves as bear to each of any of the following relations that is to say husbands and wives, parents and children.

Slavery was abolished in England in 1833 but some scholars believe it continued in Saint Lucia, then a part of Britain, until 1838.

There was no mention of the name de Jorna.  Are they innocent?  I don’t think so.  The 1709 Martinque Recensement (Census) lists slaves held at a fort overseen by one of my relatives.  At the Quartier of Saint Pierre under the de Jorna regiment were 1864 enslaved negresses (Female) and 1649 negres (Males).   These terms were used from the colonial period until WWII after which they became racially charged.


And so the prejudice, the belief that skin color determines value passes down from generation to generation- a diseased legacy.  My father listened to his Aunt Yia deride his darker skinned relatives and assumed the mantle- identification with the colonizers, slave holders, ennobled ancestors while denigrating his other birth right- skin color.  Yet, he was the dark face amongst a sea of white at Saint John’s Grammar School.

IMG_7819My father, Louis Zinis, 3rd row from the bottom, 4th from the left                            Saint John’s Grammar School, Orange. New Jersey, 1919       

My grandmother, his mother, must have been worried when she sent him off to first grade.

He’s in for a hard time even though I dress him better than all the other children in this backwater, cette ville de remous.  He is so charmant in his sailor shirt.  My sister Yia worries.  Sometimes when she looks at him, she shakes her head muttering, comme un negre.   He is the darkest of my children although in summer it’s hard to tell.  The girls could pass the other way, noires pas blanches.  But he must endure all those pasty Irish faces, hear their taunts- darky, jigaboo.  He’s a gentle boy but they will change him.

She was right.  Reinforced by his prep school, Saint Benedict’s in Newark, New Jersey, then a bastion of white males, he took on their racism, perhaps, hoping to distinguish himself from his grandmother, Noel de Jorna, listed as “colored” on her death certificate.  Or did he want to align himself with his Greek father who described his wife to Greek relatives as ” ma femme francaise noire,”  my black French wife?  But like most people of color, there is no real escape.  Years later my five year old son called to me excitedly: his grandfather, Papa Lou, was on television.   But it wasn’t my father: it was Louis Armstrong.

 Thursday March 5

The good weather didn’t hold: a rainy cold day.   Nevertheless, I was determined to walk to Poetry, a clothing store not far from Regents Park.  My umbrella spent more time inside out than it did protecting me from the rain.  After an hour or so, I made it to the Marylebone High Street, a surprising enclave of small winding streets with upscale stores.  As for purchases, no joy.

UnknownMarylebone High Street

Given the weather, I took a bus back to Bloomsbury intending to do some research at the British Library.  After getting a library card, I spent the day in one of the reading rooms looking for information on my Irish grandmother whose family were also British citizens during the 19th century.  I went through ancient (17th and 18th century) records of Roscommon County where my grandmother had lived looking for a familiar name.  Compiled by the British, they listed names as British or Irish.  No luck.


The librarian directed me to another database where I found a last name I recognized: Beirne.  A Bridget Beirne was my great-great grandmother.   Down the rabbit hole I went.  In 1923, this Beirne had been a doctor in the village of Kilnamanagh where my great grandmother and great uncles had lived.  His correspondence was part of a large collection of Marie Stopes’ letters, the founder of the first birth control clinic in Britain.

He wrote of a client with an intact hymen who had managed to get pregnant.  Is this just a “condition” of rural Catholic Ireland?  But no, it’s possible.  There were other letters asking about a cervical cap she had recommended.  What did Dr. Beirne risk making such an inquiry while practicing in a country that prohibited birth control: to disobey was a mortal sin- and the consequence eternal hell.

Now I have library cards to all the public libraries in Paris, to the British Library, and to the British National Archives.  Overwhelming.  Where to concentrate my efforts?  Nana Daly from Ireland, Grand-mere de Jorna from Saint Lucia?  Pappous Zinis from Greece?





On My Way

February 14 Friday

Today, I’m starting on the long, tortured journey of writing a book that perhaps no one will read but may take years to complete.   I’m terrified, scared shitless.  To keep on target, I’m writing this blog, exposing to many or no one this quixotic enterprise.  Quixotic indeed, as it can’t be categorized: part memoir, part fiction, part exploration of sociology, history, anthropology. gender, race.  A sprinkling of French.   My grandmother and her sisters insisted they hailed from France.  Really they emigrated from Saint Lucia.  In their determination to hide all traces of African blood, they wiped out large swaths of their history and denied the rest in order to pass, in order to be taken as white.

Can I pull it off.  Who will care?  Is it of any value?

Ann Patchett in her memoir, Truth & Beauty, about her friendship with the writer, Lucy Grealy,  after waitressing all day, after being divorced, and living at home once again, reveals her own doubts about writing:

I was starting to wonder if I was ready to a be a writer, not someone who won prizes, got published, and was given the time and space to work, but someone who wrote as a course of life.  Maybe the salvation I would gain through work would only be emotional and intellectual.  Wouldn’t that be enough, to be a waitress who found an hour or two hidden in every day to write?  If Lucy was struggling to find her way under the burdens of surgery, surely I could find it in the comfort of my mother’s guest room.  I made my resolve to work for the love of the work, to write for myself, but it didn’t have to last for long.  She got a fellowship to the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown which gave her 7 months to write with some money and an apartment.

I’m hoping for this type of resolve as unlike Patchett, I won’t be rescued.

Return to Paris Day 22

Monday April 22

My last morning in Paris, I walked to Rue Berthollet the first place Mayotte Capecia lived in Paris.  It’s Easter Monday, so the streets were empty.  The walk from Rue Irelandais goes along Rue L’Homond, passes a small garden, turns down Rue Retaud adjacent to yet another garden.  Paris is like that, places of unexpected green and rest.

Rue Retaud
Yet, where Claude Bernard intersects with Rue Berthollet, there is little greenery.
15 Rue Berthollet, Mayotte Capecia’s first home in Paris

What was it like for Capecia to land here coming from a small island surrounded by the sea, alive with verdure?  In Je Suis Martiniquaise, her first person narrator, also named Mayotte, describes an idyllic childhood:

Why did I decide to write?  I had just arrived in Paris….. It was cold and snowing and the gentle whiteness falling from the sky that I was seeing for the first time both fascinated me and caused me pangs of homesickness.  That is when I wrote down some of the childhood memories about my country.

Each day for me was different, each day brought it’s own revelation, each day was like a net that brought strange fish to the shores.  But I think that my favorite moment was the evening when all the village children gathered on the endless beach.  We rolled in the sand, still lukewarm, flecked with tiny stones, clear as glass in which the last rays danced, and which I thought, were like dead stars fallen from the sky the night before.  On our half naked bodies we felt the voluptuous caress of a fresh breeze.  The sun set slowly and, minute by minute, the colors changed.  The ocean horizon became yellow, then orange- I do not remember ever in my life having seen a more beautiful spectacle.

In 1905, my grandmother faced the same contradictions coming from the small town of Soufriere, Saint Lucia to Hoboken, New Jersey, then, onto Washington Heights in Manhattan.  Perhaps she was not so disconcerted.  Her father had sent her and a few of her sisters to school in England, so she knew a different “lieu” or place.  Perhaps, she looked forward to leaving the confines of a small island where there were few surprises.

Hoboken Ferry to Manhattan, Early 1900’s

Soon after arriving in Paris, Capecia became a cook for a family in order to make ends meet.  She was alone, her children left behind in Martinique in the care of her twin sister, Reine, who later joined her.  My grandmother was eventually brought to New York by a sister, her older sister Yia.  What greeted her?  Aunt Yia lived above a store front.  Even in the 1960’s, she had to be called from the street in order to enter her apartment.  In the early 1900’s, she had access to the cellar where she put up boarders, each bed separated only by a sheet.  One of those boarders was my Greek grandfather.  Was this a shock to both grandparents, one from Saint Lucia, one from the small village of Kastellia in Greece?

Women Playing Cricket, Saint Lucia 1905
Kastellia, Fokida, Greece
My Greek grandfather, Efstadiou Zinis, (middle, top row), early 1900’s shortly before he left for America

Capecia had to work most of her adult life.  She wasn’t a stranger to supporting herself.  And my grandmother?  She certainly had it better in Saint Lucia than Capecia in Martinique.  She had been abroad to school, she and her sisters played instruments, traveled first class to America, and like good Victorian women, they knew how to sew.  After her sister Yia threw out her husband, she earned her living as a dressmaker or as Yia, always aiming high, described on her card, a dress designer, not merely a seamstress.

Another commonality between Capecia’s protagonist and my grandmother, Germaine, was a preference for white men.  When the local priest in Je Suis Martiniquaise offers to help her learn her catechism lessons, she writes:

He looked at me with his bright blue eyes.  Oh, how I have loved to be blond like him!

Later when the character learns that she had a white grandmother, she wonders if her mixed race mother had married a white man instead of her black father, would her life have been easier.  She ends the chapter with this declaration.

I, who was still thinking about the Father (the priest), decided that I could love only a white man, a blond with blue eyes, a Frenchman.

Although in the early 1900’s when my grandmother married my Greek grandfather, he wasn’t exactly considered “white.”  This possibility was pointed out to me at a coffee I was required to give as a Marine Corps officer’s wife.  The women were discussing the marriage of Jackie Kennedy to Onassis. “How could she marry that dirty Greek?” one woman decried.  The others clucked in sympathy.  After a few minutes of decision making, I told them, “My grandfather is Greek.” That was the end of the coffee.  Unlike my grandmother, I didn’t hide my heritage, at least, not what I knew of it.  But I wasn’t in danger of being lynched for the color of my skin.  Between 1882 and 1968, almost 4000 African Americans were lynched.  And it only took “one drop” of Africa heritage to fall into that category.

My great grandmother’s death certificate.  She is described as colored

Years later, while visiting  my grandfather’s Greek village, a cousin said to me, “Oh your grandmother’s name was Mary.” No, I told him that was my grandfather’s second wife after my grandmother Germaine died.  His disdainful response, “Oh, yours is the black grandmother.”  Did my grandfather have the same contempt for his wife.  It seems he did: he told his Greek family Germaine’s secret with his white Irish wife on his arm.

And this prejudice or preference runs deep.  My daughter’s  Greek professor when meeting me said with pleasure, “Ah you have the blue eyes of the north.”

What is it this desire to be white, to be blue-eyed?  Was my father pleased I had blue eyes even if my skin didn’t quit meet his standards?  Not always.  Too dark.

I planned to uncover the experience of being a mixed race French West Indian living in Paris trying to get closer to my family’s experience of passing.  I’ve only scratched the surface.  I will come back, come home as my family and I seem to view Paris.

View from my room, my last night

As Jean Rhys, that other creole, says to a companion at the end of her novel Good Morning, Midnight

Well, there you are, Paris, and this is a good-bye drink….

Return to Paris Day 14

Sunday, April 14

Palm Sunday.  I peeked out my window to see how the day would be celebrated.  The church goers had gathered in the courtyard to receive fresh palms.   As a child, I made crosses from dried palms.


Instead of mass, I went to the market to buy flowers for that very window.


When I returned, I planned my route to the Musee d’Orsay to see “Le modele noir de Gericault a Matisse” (The Black Model from Gericault to Matisse) which I had first seen at Columbia University.

I liked the route as it took me through my old neighborhood of Odeon.  After crossing Blvd. Saint Germaine to Rue de l’Ancienne Comedie, I turned onto Rue de Buci, a virtually pedestrianized narrow street filled with restaurants, Parisians. and a group of blues buskers.


I arrived at the museum early enough to avoid long lines. The exhibit had greatly expanded from what I had seen in New York.  At first I’m was in a frenzy: there was so much to see, so many wonders: films of Harlem projected on the walls high enough so everyone can see.

And a film of Katherine Dunham, the choreographer, anthropologist, and metissage (her mother was French Canadian, her father African America) dancing Les Ballets Caribes in Paris.


I tried to photograph much of the text displayed on the wall but had to maneuver around other visitors. At one point I backed into a display and fell on my backside.  It was worth it.  One section entitled “Metissages Litteraires,” Mixed Race in Literature, mentioned Alexandre Dumas.  The author of The Three Musketeers was the grandson of an emancipated slave (Slavery in the French colonies wasn’t abolished until 1832.)   

My grandmother, Germaine de Jorna, nicknamed her sons after the three musketeers.

De Jorna Family

Armand de Jorna married Noeline Noel


Andreid (Yia)  Germaine  James (father of Adria and Everard)

Zinis Family

Germaine de Jorna Married Efstadiou Zinis


Andrew  Germaine  Alma  Louis  Flora  Gabriel  Stella

Louis Zinis married Mary Daly (daughter of Mary McGann)


Judith  Linda  Edward

My father was Porthos, the character who wanted to make a fortune.  Since he worked from an early age in order to have his own spending money, the choice seems apt.  Did she choose this book because she knew of Dumas’ heritage.  Because she knew that another de Jorna had actually been a “mousquetaire?’


Louis Zinis (Porthos) who liked nice cars

Also discussed was Jeanne Duval born in Haiti around 1827.  She became Baudelaire’s mistress and was an important part of the poems in Les Fleurs du mal.  One edition included Matisse’s drawing, Martiniquaise, A Martinique Woman.  An exciting coincidence, so similar to the title of Mayotte Capecia’s novel, Je Suis Martiniquaise, 


My de Jorna relative arrived in Martinique in 1690, five years after the enactment of the Code Noir, an edict of Louis XIV that set forth the policy for the slave population and remained in effect until 1789.  In the 1700’s one of the Martinique de Jorna’s angered a King of France: he was demoted from a high level administrative position to head of the militia.  In either case, he had to be involved in controlling slaves and having slaves.  But years later, they mixed, the de Jorna’s and the slaves.  So like Dumas, I am also descended from a slave.  Nevertheless, my military writer friend is somewhat correct in assessing it’s limited effect on me.  My father didn’t wash my skin with lye in order to “whiten” me.  However, my great aunt Yia tried this method on her nieces.

Edouard Glissant, Martinique poet and philosopher,  wrote ”One of the assumptions of French culture is to assimilate people, to have them all become like a transcendent French model.”  The French Antilleans believed they were French and according to Glissant, emulated French values which meant being white forming what he called a “pseudo-elite,” that resulted in a “depersonalization” of their identity.  Consequently. being identified as African or black was an insult.  They, as my grande-tante did, wanted to get as close as possible to white, to French culture.  Every summer she sent her nieces to a relative’s farm on Long Island where they were scrubbed with a diluted lye solution to make sure their one drop wasn’t too evident.

4x6- The Girls

Germaine de Jorna’s daughters once washed with lye

When she brought her brother’s daughter and son from Saint Lucia to live with her, the nephew was banished from her household.  He couldn’t pass.  He was too dark.  He joined the Merchant Marines so the story went.  However, he spent most of his life in Manhattan never to be seen again, at least not by his family or even the sister with whom he had lived.  Her skin tone did pass.  She kept that secret all her life.

By chance, on my way home,  I passed where Richard Wright had once lived.  Fitting.


Return to Paris Day 6

Saturday, April 6

I decided to go to Cemetiere Montparnasse in search of Mayottte Capecia’s grave.  A listing of prominent residents hangs outside the guardhouse facing the Boulevard Edgar Quinet entrance.  She’s not listed, perhaps not seen as important, not seen at all.

Frantz Fanon, prominent psychiatrist and philosopher from Martinique, thought so and even worse, describing her novel, Je Suis Martiniquaise  (I Am A Martinque Woman) in his book Black Skin, White Masks as “cut-rate merchandise, a sermon in praise of corruption.”  Both the protagonists in her novels prefer white men.  Frantz Fanon saw her preference as a form of self-hatred.  Maryse Conde, revered Guadeloupian author and Professor Emirita of Columbia University, believes Fanon ignored the context in which the novel was written (1948), that is, a time of racial difficulties and identity confusion, perhaps, what W.E.B Dubois called “depersonalization,” “two heritages,” “two identities.”

My great aunt made similar choices, insisting her family’s, my family’s African “blood” be kept secret.  When her brother’s children came to live with her in Washington Heights, only the niece was allowed to stay.  The nephew deemed too dark had to leave.  Stories were told about his joining the merchant marines and living abroad although Everard de Jorna spent most of his life in Manhattan never to be seen again.

I asked the guard to look for her name: he came up empty.  I gave him an alternative, Lucette Ceranus, as Mayotte Capecia is a pseudonyme. No luck.  He asked me for the date of her death.  When I answered 1955, he said he didn’t have the lists for that year and suggested I look on the internet.  I told him I would try to find her using my eyes.  I perused several rows but realized I was on a fool’s errand.  The cemetery holds over 40,000 graves.


Perhaps, I could pay homage to Agnes Varda who had died just days ago.  Would she have been buried so soon with her husband, Jacques Demy?  I had no trouble finding it: the gravesite was awash in flowers.


Last year, when she was still alive, I visited him, sitting on the small bench flanking the grave.  Now that bench is almost invisible.  Many of the  messages to Mme. Varda seem so intimate.  There was even one from the merchants of Rue Daguerre where she lived and that she documented in the film Daguerrotypes.  


I intended to visit that street one more time but managed to get completely tangled up, losing my way as I seem to be doing literally and metaphorically, and so, instead, made my way home.

Every night I’ve been eating alone in my room.  Enough is enough.  I had seen a little restaurant on Rue Pot au Fer with a menu that appealed to me: entree, grenouille, plat, sole meunière, dessert, tarte tatin.  All my favorites.  The street tends to be commercially “charmante,” so I had my doubts.  I began with a pastis: this time a large Ricard.  When I ordered my dinner, the waiter discouraged me from getting a pichet of vin ordinaire.  I hesitated,  wondering if this was a scam.  He showed me the demi bouteille of white Bordeaux and, then, bought me a glass of the vin ordinaire to taste.  He was right: il n’etait pas bon.  The frog’s legs were fried not sautéd so not great.  However, the sole was fresh with good flavor.

Two hours of decent food, being a bit tipsy, watching pedestrians traipse up and down the street.  Pas mal.