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Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Genetic Legacy And Family History–Do We Really Want To Know?

Genealogy is among the most popular searches on the Internet. Americans have a renewed interest in discovering or validating their family history, and have recently turned to DNA markers for a more accurate identification of their ancestors.

Needless to say there are a lot of surprises.  Any old, revered family, known for its rectitude, culture, and philanthropy will still have black sheep, ne’er-do-wells, brigands, and unsavory characters in its past; and despite decades if not centuries of a storied family history, new sophisticated search engines and genetic advances have opened the books.  Most people go on the hunt in the hopes of turning up illustrious relatives – a First Family of Virginia, links to the Cabots and Lodges of Boston, the John Adams family; or even more importantly earls, dukes, viscounts, and courtiers of England – but most are disappointed. Not only do they have no ancestors of any note; but their family history is littered with the mentally-deficient, morally suspect, and unremarkable. 

For some families the discovery of a mixed race ancestor is particularly troublesome.  People who have all along believed that they have been descended from pure white, aristocratic and noble European families have a surprise coming. 

There is the famous case of the French count whose forbears fought in the First Crusade may have married a marchioness but fathered children by a Haitian slave during his service to Napoleon.  These mulattoes made their way to New Orleans, sired quadroons and octoroons, all of whom prospered.  A young woman in Washington, DC had always stopped her genealogical research in France, satisfied with her direct link to the Rochefoucauld family.  She was particularly impressed with  the illustrious Francois VI de la Rochefoucauld and kept a portrait of him in her study.

When DNA searches turned up the New Orleans quadroons, she was shocked.  The image of nobility, cultural renown, and historical importance was forever tarnished. Her ancient relative who went to Haiti pure and unsullied left the father of four illegitimate colored children – her direct ancestors.  As much as she tried to trace other strands of the family, there was no escaping the conclusion that he was the one. Her spirits picked up after she read Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom – the story of Thomas Sutpen who left Virginia for Mississippi, cleared and farmed Sutpen’s 100, and despite his intent to be a rich white American with a rich white family, he married a New Orleans octoroon whose son later comes to haunt him.  At least she was not alone.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. has generated a lot of interest thanks to his DNA charting of prominent black American families. Not surprisingly, most of these African Americans had a lot of white blood. So  much, in fact, that if racial categorization were a function only of genetics, then they would more properly be called white rather than black. Some subjects were upset by the news, for they had staked their reputations on the black experience.  Whether actors, musicians, or political activists, they had either embraced the Blues, Paul Robeson, or Josephine Baker; or made a career on attacking white privilege, white racism, and white exploitation.  What did this DNA evidence do for their self-image?

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A well-known lawyer recently discovered that he was descended from Virginia slave owners.  A life-long progressive who had never wavered in his commitment to civil rights and black empowerment, he was shocked by the evidence.  Not only was his not-so-distant relative a slave owner, but one of the biggest in Virginia.  The fact that most wealthy Englishmen who had settled in the colonies bought up large tracts of fertile Tidewater land, planted tobacco, and made fortunes with slave labor made no difference to him. The bloodline he thought was pure American – that is the blood of New England Puritans and Virginia gentlemen – was no such thing.

Not surprisingly given his Southern lineage and the large family of the slave-owning ancestor, my friend found that he also had the blood of Confederate officers in his veins.  Rather than be proud of these men who had trained at West Point with Grant and Sherman and gone on to be courageous and often brilliant soldiers, he wanted to expunge them from his family record.
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A woman in the small New England town of  New Brighton was proud of her family’s history. She did not need to go back generations for the source of this pride – she neither claimed nor sought noble ancestry – but was satisfied with her parent’s family and their parents’.  Her grandfather and grandmother, great aunts and uncles and all the many sisters and brothers of her parents had all turned out well.  They had been artists, bankers, scientists, and professors; and the cousins of her generation were all on the same track.  Everyone married well, and all became respected members of their communities.

All but one.  Cousin Robert Macklin Augur was a ‘bad seed’ as the old folks used to call irreparably antisocial offspring of the family.  Bobby had pulled the wings off fireflies, tortured frogs, and hoed cats to death.  He was insolent, disrespectful, and rude. He liked or loved no one, had a total disregard for church, community, or family; and as far as the family was concerned would end up dead or imprisoned before he made it out of his twenties.

As much as Bobby Augur shamed and discredited the entire family, his relatives were obsessed with only one thing.  Where did this monster come from? Rumor had it that he was actually a bastard, born out of wedlock; and his parents for the sake of propriety, status, and repute kept the illegitimacy a secret. He couldn’t possibly be their natural son.

Yet Mr. and Mrs. Augur were a model couple.  Although they were both fit and attractive, never had either one of them been seen in even the occasion of sin.  Of all couples in New Brighton, they would be the last to stray.  The rumor, although entertaining and novelistic, soon died; and the mystery of Bobby’s behavior, character, and personality remained.

Had the New Brighton matron had any interest in genealogy, she would have discovered Randall Theodore Parsons, a maternal ancestor of the Augurs who over 150 years ago had been hunted, jailed, and executed for horrific crimes in Massachusetts. The newspaper accounts of the day recorded a reign of terror throughout the Commonwealth while he was at large.  No one would be safe, the articles said, until the miscreant was dangling from a rope.

It doesn’t take much DNA to effect the course of family history.  Mendel’s laws were there for everyone to see; and despite the prominence of parents’ genetic package, there is no accounting for the bits that come down the line from the likes of of Randall Parsons.

More and more, scientists are agreeing that genetics accounts for at least fifty percent of human appearance, behavior, intelligence, and personality; so those Augurs who had previously championed nurture over nature – i.e. Randy’s genes were fine; it was his terrible infancy and childhood which had corrupted him – had to recant.  He probably was indeed a bad seed.

Image result for images movie the bad seed
Genealogy, therefore is a two-edged sword.  For all the luminaries discovered in one’s past, there are just as many misfits, layabouts, idiots, and deranged outcasts.  Genetics is a crap shoot; and you take your chances.

“What’s the point?”, asked a colleague who said she had enough to deal with in her own immediate family rather than root around ancestry. Everyone is dealt a hand of genetic cards, she said, and all you can do is play them.  In other words, searching for a pedigree or turning up nasty business is irrelevant. No amount of investigation into genetic antecedents is going to change Uncle Henry or Aunt Bernice.

Hawthorne was a big believer in family destiny, and wrote about it in both The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables. Old Hepzibah Pyncheon could never dismiss the legacy of the many generations of her house which her great ancestor Colonel Pyncheon had built. She cannot get over the similarity between her cousin, the Judge, and her original forbear; nor could she stop looking for past influence in the virginal, beautiful, childlike Phoebe.  Destiny was painted in the portraits of the Pyncheon family which Hepzibah refused to take down.

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There is a bit of both.  There is no denying the persuasive influence of family, especially if it is one of importance, nobility, or renown; and there’s no getting away from the nasty bits of DNA passed down through the centuries.  Yet, the hometown wife was right. Play the cards you’re dealt and be done with it. There’s enough to worry about right here and now.

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