Unlike most Jewish boys from New Jersey, I have a Jamaican accent,” Ross Kenneth Urken writes in his debut, an affectionate memoir. While this may have the ring of a conversation overheard at a hipster Brooklyn bar, Urken claims it’s “the honest-to-goodness truth, and it all started with Dezna”.
That’s Dezna Sanderson, a nanny from Jamaica who appeared on the Urkens’ doorstep in the middle of a blizzard in Princeton, New Jersey in 1988, when he was 18 months old. She stayed, helping keep the peace between warring parents, until he made his bar mitzvah. The loss of his “closest childhood friend” sent Urken on an adolescent roller-coaster ride of therapists, a search for the equilibrium her presence had provided. They kept in touch until her death in 2010, which triggered his journey to Jamaica to better understand the life of his second mother.
Dezna moved to the US in the summer of 1987, 46 years old and a widow. She had been living in Pisgah, in St Elizabeth Parish, about 30 miles south of Montego Bay, helping her husband, a pineapple farmer, and working as a nurse. Although most of her eight children were now adults, there were still two girls at home. She realised she could make more money in the US and her sister, Rohena, was in the New York area.
Urken looks at both Dezna’s motivations and how her life intersected with the forces that drove many Jamaicans like her to choose to live abroad. Her first partner, the father of her oldest son, left for England in the late 1950s. She moved to Montego Bay and worked as a seamstress, met a new man and had two more children. When that relationship ended she returned to the countryside, where she met her husband. They weathered the 1970s, a time of a turbulent economy and growing political violence that in the 80s compelled some 200,000 Jamaicans to leave for the US.
Urken’s curiosity extends well into excavating the complexity of Dezna’s personal life, less so into the tangled history of Jamaica. He describes himself as “Jewish and Jamaican”, despite never having visited the island until he began his research, in part because of a fear of flying. He skips much of the island’s longer past, focusing on the parts related to his or Dezna’s story. In doing so, he misses many opportunities to reflect on wider issues, for instance the gulf between the Jamaica of his imagination, the one Denza represented and the one he actually encountered.
He also skirts older and more stubborn structural problems embedded in Jamaican history. It is surprising he doesn’t bring up the question of race.
To Urken, Dezna’s Jamaicanness – not her blackness – is what is important, though in attempting to look past the issue of colour he scarcely mentions a crucial part of the island’s history: slavery.
In one section, he writes about how he had some trepidation in embarking on this project, so he eased himself in by signing up for an exploratory trip to Jamaica with a group documenting Jewish cemeteries on the island. He notes that some of these Jewish burials were of pirates and others were “gold traders and sugar merchants” – a glossing-over of Jamaica’s past under British and Spanish rule, which saw the destruction of indigenous communities and the establishment of sugar plantations worked, for centuries, by enslaved people.
Urken avoids talking about blackness while making a case for the exceptionalism of his own story, and in so doing fails to acknowledge that the task of taking care of the physical and emotional needs of white families in post-slavery societies is not new: for centuries it has fallen on the shoulders of black women.
Rather than the nanny, think of the “mammy” who appears happy with her servile role, or her more recent incarnation in as a cheerful “magical negro” in popular culture, always ready to come to the aid of a white person in distress.
Not only was this the case in the US and Jamaica, but across the hemisphere. At this particular moment, when there are heated discussions about the legacies of slavery and structural inequality, it comes across as a bit tone deaf to find no mention of the wider landscape of white privilege and black labour in which Urken’s personal history is situated.
Urken’s story does not need to be set among a Protestant family in Alabama to have cultural resonances about the expectations placed on black women. Dezna’s Jamaican heritage does not insulate her from US history; rather, it is a reminder of the connected and unresolved legacies that persist.
Urken does acknowledge the asymmetry of their relationship, in that “she knew everything about the Urkens – too much, perhaps – and we knew entirely too little about her.” Elsewhere, Urken mentions in passing that he worked as a tutor for a wealthy Jamaican family. But he neglects to explain this in more detail, missing another opportunity to add further dimensions to his story.
Although Urken sidesteps the wider cultural and historic aspects of this journey, he is steadfast in his affection for Denza, wearing his heart on his sleeve throughout, his abiding love for her evident. Although he cannot bring her back, he has taken great pains to resurrect her story while finding a new kinship with her family. In doing so, he writes, he reaches his “spiritual Promised Land, a personal Zion”.