"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, January 16, 2023

Who Am I? DNA, Surprises In The Closet And The Disappointing Search For Cultural Origins

A friend whose life had depended on doing the right thing and whose character was traced by civil rights, decided to put to rest the long niggling, disturbing issue of his ancestors who, as family history had it, had been slave-owners in Virginia.  Thanks to open source data, the voluminous and carefully curated archives of the Commonwealth of Virginia, and an oral history of relatives who, thanks to good genes, were still alive into their late nineties, Bob was able to trace his origins as far back as the early 1700s.

At first he was hopeful – no traces of a plantation life emerged from his inquiries; but as he well knew, not all grandees of the South had been chronicled.  There had never been a Judgment at Nuremberg where slaveowners had been been brought to court, tried, and convicted.

In fact, although the Radical Republicans of Congress had wished to behead all those who had anything to do with slavery, and despite Sherman’s scorched earth campaigns through Georgia and South Carolina, the South did rise again; and after compromise, remission of title and land ownership, and punitive treatment, the old plantation owners regained their land, power, and influence.  So it was a matter of surmise when looking at the historical record whether the forbears of Bob Matlock were indeed lords of the manor.

Notable Southern Plantation Tours in the United States

Unfortunately for Bob, a slave-owning Matlock did surface from the piles of yellowed documents archived in Richmond.  Not only had he owned slaves, but hundreds of them.  He was one of the biggest slave owners on the Northern Neck, a direct descendant of King Carter, beneficiary of the king’s largesse, and biggest land owner on that part of the Chesapeake.  

Hiram Wilkins Matlock had been a tobacco plantation owner and later, when Jefferson, concerned about the number of slaves in the Commonwealth and the disruption that wholesale manumission would cause, encouraged the sale of Virginia slaves to the Lower South.  Hiram Matlock made thousands as a slave trader, far more than he had realized from simple plantation ownership.

Bob was taken aback by the discovery, for he had spent hours untangling the twisted and difficult genealogical and Virginia history with no slaveowner in sight. Yet, there it was, proven without a doubt.  He was the direct descendant of one of the biggest slaveowners in Virginia and one of the most important slave traders.

Slave life on Southern plantations - Slavery and the Civil War - National 5  History Revision - BBC Bitesize

How was he to reconcile these facts with his long, devoted, and even storied engagement with civil rights – marching with Martin Luther King across the Pettis Bridge, sit-ins in Alabama, protests on the Washington Mall, membership in all the most liberal and progressive civil rights organizations in Washington?

There was only one way to reset the balance – to discover black blood in his patrician veins.  If Thomas Jefferson and every grandee of the South had had sexual relations and children with slaves, then he could very well be a descendant of one such affair.

It would take some digging – mulatto children were marginalized, dismissed, and forgotten until post-slavery times when their white blood gave them an ironic status – but it was worth the effort.  If he could go to the Black Caucus, African Americans For Rightful Compensation, or the highest echelons of Black Lives Matter as a black man (percentages in the case of racial politics did not matter) he would be welcomed with open arms.  Before, he was only an aging white liberal who was atoning for his elitist guilt, but now he could be one of them.

365 Slave Auction Photos and Premium High Res Pictures - Getty Images

His search, however, came up empty.  As a matter of fact it only deepened his sense of guilt.  Not only was Hiram Matlock a slaver, but so was his wife’s family.  Between them they commanded a large portion of Virginia’s wealth thanks to their extensive plantations.  Worse, a cousin branch of the family had been prosperous ship owners in Newport and Nantucket and benefitted greatly from the Three Cornered slave trade; and another branch, like the fictional Sutpen of Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom made tens of thousands on Mississippi Delta bottom land.

Now, rather than have exonerating evidence, he had culpatory information that if made public would doom him.  How could he hold his head up in a congregation of black people when he was the epitome of white privilege and white dishonor?  The only thing to be done was to beg forgiveness, to confess all, and to beseech black people’s forgiveness; and so Bob went on a personal crusade not to clear his name but to drag it through the mud.  The more filth and slime that he could smear on the Matlock name, the more he might be accepted.

This might be thought of as an extreme example of genealogical sensation, but Henry Louis Gates, black professor and academic reminder of black oppression, used new DNA testing and analysis to determine the origins of famous black athletes, entertainers, and celebrities.  The television show which highlighted the most famous black personalities and provided great wow! moments when genealogical facts were revealed, was a hit.  

However, since so many American blacks had significant white ancestry, the cries of surprise were muted by wonder.  How could it be that I have so much hated white blood? What does this do to my identity?

Of course, given the racial zeitgeist of the day in which a biracial child claims black only heritage (think Barack Obama), the idea of dismissing white genes is common; but yet Gates insisted it could not be denied.  And what if that white blood were noble? Hiram Matlock was from an aristocratic English family whose ancestors had been at court since the days of Henry II.  Didn’t that count for something? Perhaps even more than the Angolan tribal ancestry on the other side?

King Henry II Of England | Henry II Facts | DK Find Out

A woman of mixed ethnicity – WASP and shanty Irish – used genealogy to beef up the American side of her heritage, discovered her direct descendance from a founder of the Massachusetts Bay colony and a link to John Smith and the Albemarle, York River clan.  She became a Daughter of the American Revolution and wanted to be sure that her mongrel children (she had married a Silesian Pole) knew exactly where they came from.

“Leave it be”, said a New York Jew from Far Rockaway who had never met a Christian until he went to college, so insular and homogenous was his community.  “I’m an American Jew who sat shiva, went to Yeshiva, suffered a yenta mother, and who loves Yonah Schimel's, Katz’s and barley soup.  What more do I need to know?”

A colleague whose ancestors were peasant, marginal farmers in Catania, Italy, one of the poorest regions of the Mezzogiorno, was of like mind.  “What is there more to know?”, he said.  His family’s immigrant experience was one of thousands – hard working, family dependent, conservative, and suspicious of Irish government overlords.  Maybe there was a Mafia connection in the tangle or some miscreant fleeing Italian justice, but more than likely any probing would uncover the obvious.  Why bother?

No one really needs to know anything more that they are American, however situated. For all the Internet sites on community, heritage, and cultural legacy, life for second and third generation European immigrants is no different from those here many decades before. 

Black people are in the same boat.  They know that they are a genetic hodgepodge – large dollops of white in black African blood  - and while they may have some interest in their tribal origins, Angola, Ghana, Nigeria, or Tanzania have no real relevance.  Their ancestors were slaves, traded by tribal chieftains then bought and sold by European slavers and consigned to a live of slavery in the Americas.   It is the post-slavery history which is or should be of principal interest. 

The genealogical sites are making millions thanks to the new fad of cultural legacy.  Discovering one’s origins makes not a whit of difference in one’s life, prospects, and future; but thousands have bought into the game.  It’s America, after all, where fads and parlor games are par for the course.  Go ahead, embrace eggplant parmesan, latkes, and pierogis.  Why not?. 

Nonna Nerina welcomes travelers to the Roman countryside to learn more  about Italian pasta tradition

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