The report that Henry Louis Gates, Jr. has established a company that will employ historians and anthropologists to assess and interpret findings from “genetic genealogy” searches noted that Gates himself had been given incorrect information about his maternal ancestry by a commercial search firm. His mitochrondrial DNA did not point to the ancient North African kingdom of Nubia, as he had been told, but rather to a white European, probably a servant in the American colonies. The initial misinterpretation was due in part to a commercial database that was deficient in European DNA samples – but also, perhaps, to wish fulfillment on the part of geneticists and their clients. Wouldn’t it be satisfying to prove a genetic link between a legendary African civilization and the world’s foremost African-American Studies scholar?
Such drives and desires have always been part of the search for, and documentation of, one’s own ancestors, or the primal parents of one’s own tribe. The first books in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, Genesis and Matthew, include long genealogies establishing who begat whom, straight back to Adam and Eve. Shi’a Islam traces its lineage, and spiritual authority, to Muhammad’s daughter and son-in-law. In Zen Buddhism, the practice of dharma transmission from teacher to student constitutes a lineage that connects contemporary practitioners to ancient masters. Among Americans, family genealogy is one of the most popular pastimes, long aided by the Church of Latter Day Saints’ vast archives and more recently by the Internet. Even a casual visit to the LDS’s genealogical website, www.familysearch.org, becomes instantly absorbing once you start typing in your ancestor’s names and seeing what comes up.
Even a bad-hat ancestor may be desirable if he completes a family’s story. In his 1997 documentary Family Name, filmmaker Mackie Alston delves into the history of the “white” and “black” Alstons in his hometown in North Carolina. The Alstons have separate family reunions: at the “white” reunion, a cousin reads from a genealogical chart that shows the how the family is related to Charlemagne, Alfred the Great, Noah, and, yes, Adam and Eve. At first, Mackie Alston is certain that the missing link connecting his branch of the family to the African-American Alstons he’s met will prove to be a notoriously cruel slave-owner, “Chatham Jack” Alston. As in Gates’s case, the facts the filmmaker uncovers point to a different story. He learns, for example, that his own branch of the family descended from an illegitimate “Alston” – and so were not genetically related to many of their supposed cousins.
While Mackie Alston’s genealogical research cannot confirm his belief that the black Alstons were descended from the same slave-owners as the white Alstons, during his search for the ur-ancestor he finds other stories, including those of African-American Alstons who moved north, became part of the arts community in Harlem, and occasionally passed as white – or simply didn’t give their downtown employers their telltale “uptown” address. Bliss Broyard tells a similar family story in her new memoir One Drop: My Father’s Hidden Life — A Story of Race and Family Secrets (2007).Her research led her to the Creole community of New Orleans, where she learned about the complex lives of light-skinned African Americans who, like her father, might passablanc for a day, or a lifetime. And she learned that her inquiries were disrupting these lives: a newly discovered Broyard cousin who had always passed as white was not happy about the publicity, but he came to her reading.
Early in her research, Broyard talked with Henry Louis Gates at length about the open secret of her father’s ancestry. She broke with Gates when she learned he was also planning to write about her father in his 1996 New Yorker article, “The Passing of Anatole Broyard.” The article was both praised and vilified for “outing” Broyard. In a recent public radio interview, Bliss Broyard described her complex emotions about Gates’s actions. She recalls feeling angry – but later, feels relieved at having been spared the burden of telling that part of the story herself. In genealogy as in genetics, getting the story straight means acknowledging complexity, confronting myths, and letting go of the craving for a simple, elegant explanation of the varieties of human experience.