I have been fascinated by Irish history since high school. Ask a few of my friends, they’ll tell you of my obsession. It stemmed from wanting to know who I was, where my people came from. In hindsight, this was the beginning of my genealogical pursuits. Why Irish? Because, to be blunt, I looked stereotypically Irish. Paler than pale skin, freckles, light eyes and the strawberry blonde hair. This had to mean I was Irish. I just KNEW it.
After college, I traveled Europe for almost two months with my best friend Robyn. Our first country was Ireland, of course. I felt a sense of homecoming. Among the ancient dolmans, neolithic tombs, crumbling cathedrals and the warm, loving people we met in every town and pub along the way.
As it turns out, I am NOT Irish. Not in a statistically significant way. DNA doesn’t lie. Recent mitochondrial and autosomal DNA tests confirm I have less than 2% Irish DNA. Mostly English, Scandinavian and Western European. Even a healthy smidgen of Ashkenazi Jew (more on that later)! I have a few possible Irish ancestors on my tree that I have found thus far, but not a significant number to make it meaningful in the way I was so certain.
I have been thinking a lot about identity this week. A week where for at least one day, everyone is Irish. It is interesting to me, as a genealogist, how people identify themselves and their history often on how they look. I hear it from friends and family, that we must have Native American blood because of how quickly we tan, high cheekbones or straight black hair that grandmother had. Statistically, this is more often a false assumption than a true one. As a genealogist, I know this is a pitfall most people fall into, myself obviously at one point included. Genealogists are a curious bunch and have the need to know about the various ethnicities and races that are part of our family history. We use research and science to confirm or dismiss family lore and not physical traits or characteristics.
For many people, this is not an option for various reasons, time and interest certainly being a couple. For others, it is that the paper trail runs cold. I have hit such road blocks. But for African Americans this is more often than not the case in their genealogical research. Their identities prior to the Civil War are usually erased, most often listed as a tick mark next to an age and a Male or Female indicator on a non-population slave schedule of a census record. Let that sink in. No names+ No identity= Not human. Heart shattering. Thankfully, The Freedman’s Bureau Project is working diligently to research, index and preserve the records of more than 4 million post-Civil war era African Americans searchable online, returning the identities of millions of American’s ancestors.
An acquaintance posted a viral video this week of an African American man being quizzed by a white woman. Her audacious question, “what are you?” hung in the air. Because he was light skinned or had light eyes, she assumed his parentage must be mixed and asked him if that was the case. It was not. As you can imagine, he was incredulous and offended at her questioning. What she valued and articulated as his attractive qualities were the ones she equated with being caucasian. Unfortunately, this has been the case throughout our American history.
From a genealogical perspective, we all want to know who we are, where we come from. The stories make us human and interesting. They connect us. From the perspective of trying to put someone in a neat box to “legitimize” them, this is a fundamentally flawed and biased way of thinking.
Last night I was thrilled to be able to watch American Fault Line: Race and the American Ideal, with two of my personal heroes, Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Ken Burns. I knew they were doing this tour and knew they wouldn’t be coming anywhere close to where I live. Dr. Gates is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also the host of such great PBS shows including The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross and his genealogical series African American Lives and Finding Your Roots. Mr. Burns is a brilliant documentary film maker who most people know for his series, The Civil War, but also The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, and a host of other series on uniquely American historical events. These gentlemen have cred!
They have both been discussing race and identity for years through their cumulative works. While they have known each other for years, they came together after the horrific and racially motivated shooting deaths of nine people at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston last year, to start a meaningful dialogue on race in this country. They first spoke in Charleston and have since spoken at SXSW, George Washington University and last night at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) Center.
During the session, they talked about the removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina state capitol in the aftermath of the shooting. They spoke about the painful imagery that the flag evokes, and the imagery of African Americans as less that human so that they could be economized and commoditized to do the manual work of building America. This stripped millions of slaves of their dignity and identity. They spoke of the hope for healing in the city, and the slow but increasing progress we have made in Civil Rights and the work that still needs to be done.
They spoke about how African American history cannot be separated from the American history that some would claim to “Make Great Again.” They are intricately linked, slavery being the “original sin” of this country as often accurately described by Ken Burns. But it isn’t just African American history, it is Native American, Chinese, and the other groups who have been targeted, displaced and marginalized. Many Americans compartmentalize history into and “us against them.” We cannot speak of race and diversity and just black and white terms.
They also spoke about the current Presidential election and how they could not have predicted at the start of their efforts how much the Donald Trump campaign would have changed the current dialogue with it’s racist, misogynistic, and exceedingly divisive rhetoric. They spoke about the economic roots of racism, and how that is still true today. Donald Trump is capitalizing on peoples fear, using scarcity as leverage.
At the conclusion of the conversation, Dr. Gates pointed out something I have heard him say many times before on his Finding Your Roots series. Essentially, we are all related somewhere. We are all family. Genealogy and DNA show that we are all linked in some way even if it is messy and complex, which is often the case. This is true no matter what we may look like on the outside, or how we identify ourselves. If we could all just start thinking of each other as family, and not see each other as the enemy work together for a common interest, then that would be the TRUE REVOLUTION that could propel our nation to greatness rather than the chaos that has pitted us against each other for hundreds of years. Chaos that will only get worse if we allow the current monologue of one man to hijack the political and moral consciousness of our country.
At the end of the talk, Ken Burns quoted the great Irish-American author William Faulkner. “History is not what, but is.” We are on the cusp of re-living some of the most painful, heartbreaking times of our recent history depending on the outcome of this election. Our history, good and bad, is very much part of our present.
I hope you will take an hour and watch this important discussion. #BurnsGates
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