Posted on July 25, 2007

The Genes That Build America

Paul Harris, Manchester Observer, July 15, 2007

Al Sharpton walked into a South Carolina pine forest just outside the sleepy southern town of Edgefield and stopped at a cluster of toothlike unmarked gravestones. This was the former plantation on which a few generations ago his ancestors had worked, lived, loved and died, owned as property by white masters. ‘You must assume that it’s family here,’ Sharpton said, referring to the abandoned slave graveyard.

A few weeks previously Reverend Sharpton, one of America’s most outspoken black civil rights leaders, had not known of the cemetery’s existence. But researchers had explored his genealogy and broken the news to him. Sharpton’s story had an astonishing twist: the genealogists discovered that his ancestors had once been owned by the ancestors of Strom Thurmond, the Senator and former segregationist who once ran for president on a racist platform. The phrase ‘ironic coincidence’ did not begin to cover it.

Dozens of reporters tagged along when Sharpton first visited the Edgefield woods, yet it was clear he was genuinely stunned by what he called ‘the greatest shock’ of his life. ‘It profoundly affected him,’ said Tony Burroughs, a genealogist who worked on the project.

Sharpton was not alone. America has embarked on an amazing journey to explore its own past. Millions of Americans of every creed and colour are exploring their family histories in a genealogy boom that is redefining who they are and what it means to be American. The internet has allowed people to find obscure information at the click of a mouse that was previously locked away on dusty library shelves. They are also using modern DNA techniques to research their racial history, creating a multi-million dollar industry of consumer genetics. Like Sharpton, many are making shocking discoveries. They are finding slaves and slave-owners. Far from being a nation of different races, many are finding they have mixed pasts. Blacks are discovering they have white blood, whites are finding black relatives. Native Americans are growing in numbers, not because of a high birth rate, but because many Americans are discovering unknown native ancestors written in their DNA.

And it is impacting right up to the highest in the land. Just after the Sharpton story broke, other genealogists revealed they had discovered presidential hopeful Barack Obama’s family—through his white mother—had also once owned slaves. Just like the Thurmonds. That means the man who hopes to become America’s first black president could be the direct descendant not of black slaves, but of white slave-owners. Literally, nothing is now as black and white as it once seemed. America has embarked on an identity revolution.

Last year, Professor Peter Fine at Florida Atlantic University had an idea for an art class. He would gather a group of students to produce work around their idea of their racial identity. But as part of the class he asked them to take a DNA test that would break down their racial background. His bet was that most of the class—of whom the majority saw themselves as whites of European descent—had no real idea who they were.

He was right. Of 13 students, only one turned out to be completely European. The rest displayed a mixture of European, Native American, African and Asian genes. The one black student turned out to be 21 per cent white. Fine himself—who admits to looking like a corn-fed stereotype of a white Midwesterner—discovered he was a quarter Native American. ‘I honestly think these tests could have a large effect on American consciousness of who we are. If Americans recognise themselves as a mixed group of people, that could really change things,’ he said.

Fine has a point. For centuries, America has been less a racial melting pot and more a stew, where different communities bump up against each other, but keep mostly to themselves. Yet, as millions of Americans take DNA tests, they are discovering a surprising truth: America’s strict racial lines are, in fact, blurred. One-third of white Americans, according to some tests, will possess between two and 20 per cent African genes. The majority of black Americans have some European ancestors.

For a few hundred dollars, Americans can radically alter the way they think of themselves through a new industry that has been dubbed ‘recreational genetics’. Dozens of companies now offer DNA tests, ranging from the basic—breaking down a person’s racial profile into broad categories such as European or Native American—to more detailed ones which claim to identify specific regions or tribes of the world. All a consumer usually has to do is take a swab from inside their cheek to provide a cell sample and then wait for the post.

It has led to some bizarre developments. One American discovered Jewish genes in his DNA and is now seeking to get Israeli citizenship. Some white college applicants, upon discovering they have African or Asian or Native American DNA, have applied for scholarships aimed at minorities. A black woman discovered 10 per cent British DNA in her test and has now identified the Scottish slave owners who used to own her ancestors. She has contacted their modern descendants—owners of a large fortune—and wants them to take tests, too.

Some researchers will go to extremes to get samples from others. People have stalked newly discovered relatives, even going through rubbish to snatch DNA samples if they refuse to volunteer them. Some have even plucked hair from newly deceased relatives. For the celebrity-minded, DNA profiles of descendants of famous historical figures have been released on the internet, including Thomas Jefferson, General Robert E Lee, Marie Antoinette and Genghis Khan. One website plans to add others soon, including DNA profiles of people related to Columbus and Billy the Kid.

DNA research is having a transforming effect on millions of lives. That is what happened with Issac Carter, 33, one of Fine’s students. He is black but his family history told of a Native American ancestor, while his tests showed he was a lot whiter than he thought and had no Native American blood at all. ‘My history has been all jumbled up,’ he said. In fact, the whole world of Native Americans has been thrown into turmoil. Many tribes, some of whom have become rich on the back of casino gambling, are now flooded with calls from people suddenly claiming to have discovered their Native American background.

A country known for its racial faultlines has discovered a new sense of fluidity. The identities emerging are complex and multi-faceted. Take another of Fine’s students, Shannon O’Brien. Hailing from small-town Ohio with a name like O’Brien, her identity as a white American should be secure. But O’Brien’s mother is Mexican and she has dark hair and skin. Many people assume she is Hispanic. Yet she has never felt any great affinity with a Hispanic identity and speaks no Spanish. ‘People used to tell me that I should change my name to make it more Hispanic,’ she said. But, after her test results came in, she was identified as 61 per cent European, 26 per cent Native American and 13 per cent African. Does any racial label quite cover the complexity of that? ‘I have my identity in my own mind,’ O’Brien said. ‘It is not just what people think when they see me. It is not so simple any more.’

But the one group for whom DNA tests have really stoked a sense of turmoil is black Americans. In America’s long history of immigration, they are the people who have no ‘old country’ to look back to. Slavery rendered mute any tangible links to Africa beyond having black skin. It left a cultural legacy that is easy to downplay if you are not a black American, but hard to overestimate if you are.

Issac Carter’s experiences with DNA in Professor Fine’s class have spurred him on to further exploration. He plans to take a more detailed test that could identify markers in his DNA that hint at specific regions or tribes in Africa. ‘I want to reclaim my history,’ Carter said. ‘My wife is Indian. She speaks her native language. She knows where her family is from. I want to know my history, too.’ If the tests link him to somewhere specific in Africa, Carter intends to visit and even study the local language. ‘We now have the ability to reconnect,’ he added.

He is not alone. Scientists are scouring America and Africa collecting DNA and trying to find common genetic markers that allow links to be made between black Americans and African tribes. One of the most prominent is the Roots Project, run by Boston scientist Dr Bruce Jackson. He has collected DNA samples from 10,000 black Americans and is comparing them to DNA excavated from slave burial grounds in America and back to specific African tribes.

The idea of being able to make such links has a powerful attraction for even the most high-profile black Americans. Last year a TV show called African American Lives, hosted by Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr, explored the genealogy and DNA of nine black Americans, including Oprah Winfrey, comedian Chris Tucker and actress Whoopi Goldberg. It ended up drawing links back to Africa, even taking Tucker to Angola, from where, the tests seemed to indicate, his ancestors hailed. The show has had a profound effect on many black Americans, popularising the tests.

Yet experts say the science is far from perfect. They point out that beyond a few generations any human is descended from a huge pool of ancestors. The fact that a great-great-great-great-grandparent was from Ghana does not make one Ghanaian. The science is also largely reliant upon statistical analysis and not always exact DNA markers. Professor Troy Duster, of New York University, calls some DNA advocates ‘pied pipers’ for making claims that their science cannot back up and playing up to a popular feeling that anything involving genetics is 100 per cent accurate. ‘There is a cultural feeling that DNA evidence is sacrosanct. But a kind of false precision is rampant right now,’ says Duster.

But such a debate only highlights how complex race has become in America. It is not just a matter of skin colour any more; it is also about how society perceives you. O’Brien’s reflection may scream Hispanic, but that is not her choice of identity. And Professor Fine may be a quarter Native American, but he admits his pale complexion means he will always be seen as white: ‘I know I still have all the privileges of being white in America.’

Greater knowledge can pose troubling questions. While hosting African American Lives, Professor Gates, one of America’s most eminent black scholars, was stunned to find he was half European. He had more ancestors in France and Ireland than in Africa. Such discoveries unsettle even the greatest mind. In the show, Gates lamented what this meant to a proud black American. ‘I have the blues,’ he said, and then asked: ‘Can I still have the blues?’

Genealogy is now the second most common hobby in America (after gardening). Genealogy websites are the second most commonly visited on the internet (after pornography). It is big business. The website has a database of five billion records and attracts four million visitors a month. The biggest player is the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, better known as the Mormons.

The Mormon dominance of the booming genealogy industry is little known. The church puts a religious duty on its members to search out their family trees. ‘We believe that families are eternal in nature. Death is not the end of a family relationship. We will see a great gathering. We will be reunited beyond the veil of death,’ said Paul Nauta, a Mormon spokesman on family history research. The doctrinal need is simple: Mormons believe the dead can be converted and have their souls saved. Thus Mormons scour the earth for genealogical records for any human being, which makes their church the best resource for millions of people researching their family histories.

The greatest source of genealogical knowledge in the world is the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. It is a huge complex that attracts tens of thousands of visitors every year. But it is just the centre of a global empire. The Mormons have set up subsidiary Family History Centers across the world. There are 4,000 in 88 countries, from Sydney to Singapore and London to Lima. They also have 200 camera teams roaming the earth, transferring records on to microfilm. They take in births, marriages, wills, deaths, property deeds, legal documents and military records. On any given day there are Mormon film crews working in 45 countries. For the ambition of the church is huge: to make all genealogical records of every human life available on the internet. ‘Still less than one per cent of the world records are accessible on the internet. So far we have just the tip of the iceberg,’ says Nauta.

It is the internet more than anything else that has enabled millions of Americans to find their family histories, forging links abroad and giving US citizens, many of whom are self-conscious about their country’s youth, a link to older nations and longer histories. Nauta, for example, has traced his family back to a village in Italy. Now he visits every two years. But others make less happy discoveries, especially around America’s greatest historical scar: slavery.

That is where Barack Obama’s past came back to haunt him. Obama is seen as black by most Americans. Yet that skin colour comes from his Kenyan father, who met his white mother, from Kansas, at college. That prompted some leading black commentators to claim that Obama is not a real black American (or not black enough). This, in turn, led a group of genealogists to trace Obama’s mother’s family back to before the Civil War—and they found that some were slave-owners. That is how—if he wins the 2008 race—America’s first ever black president will be the direct descendant of white slave-owners.

It is, ironically, an experience that many white Americans are having. In the wake of the Obama news, Chicago journalist Mark Brown asked his mother about his own background. He had assumed his family, most of whom hailed from Missouri and Kentucky hill country, had been too poor to own slaves. Not so. Soon he was looking at dusty documents that bore the name of his great-great-great-grandfather and also the black slaves he owned. ‘It was a little difficult to process at first. I see there is a part my family played in this,’ Brown said. There was more, too. One slave was listed as: ‘One negro boy named Tom, about 17 years old, of yellow complexion.’ That skin colour most likely meant that Tom was fathered by a white man. As Tom was owned by Mark Brown’s family, he was probably related to Brown. As would be his modern descendants. Brown had discovered a personal family link to America’s greatest shame, but also possibly a whole new branch of relatives—who were black. He now has a choice that is intriguing and agonising. ‘People are suggesting I should try to trace the slaves and find them. But I am worried about opening a can of worms, opening it for a whole family,’ he said.

Of course, it is black Americans who have to face the deepest traumas. Most blacks joining the genealogy boom expect to find a slave ancestor. But when it happens the experience can be upsetting. They must face the reality of descending from chattel slaves, living in bondage, and being beaten and brutalised at the hands of white masters. ‘These were our ancestors. That is kind of rough to take,’ said genealogist Tony Burroughs. It can also question the whole notion of black identity in America.

Allen McClain has been researching his family history for 20 years. It has been difficult, as he rapidly came up against the wall obstructing all black genealogy: the Civil War. Probing before that often means looking for ancestors in the wills and property deeds of white families—ancestors who were legally the property of others, with a value of a few hundred dollars, listed there alongside pigs, cows and bushels of corn. McClain, a 42-year-old Air Force veteran who now lives in Baltimore, traced his family back to rural North Carolina, where he found his first direct slave ancestor. Martha Eaton was his great-great-great-grandmother. She was found in the will of a white slave-owning family, listed alongside the rest of their estate. McClain felt ‘very emotional’ looking at these documents. ‘This was a commodity,’ he said, his voice growing a little soft. ‘I thought, how could you? This is someone’s life.’

But it is not just slavery that confronts black Americans delving into their past. Emancipation after the Civil War barely began to address their forefathers’ problems. After the war, the South imposed a system of brutal segregation known as Jim Crow Laws. Blacks were kept as virtual peons by rural share-cropping, and denied the vote. Obedience was enforced by lynching.

So when Brooklyn-born Jennifer Stokes began to trace her family into the South of her parents’ birth, she came across the shock of her family’s treatment by their fellow American citizens just 100 or so years ago. Her family’s oral history had long contained an ancestor who had been lynched in South Carolina. Now she was able to read about it in an 1895 newspaper. Her great-great-great-uncle, William Stokes, had been hung and his body riddled with bullets. The ‘excuse’ for such a brutal crime was a common one in a South obsessed with its white manhood. He had been accused of sexually assaulting a white woman. Throughout the description of his murder, the article referred to Stokes dismissively as ‘Bill’. ‘It was very raw. It made it more real. It’s one thing to hear about it and another to read it,’ Stokes said.

Making such history personal has spelled out how the full story of black Americans is still not acknowledged by white America. The common American vision of settlers and hard-working immigrants still holds sway in popular culture. Yet it is a version of history that excludes not only what happened to Native Americans, but also how America’s military and economic might was built on the back of black slaves. Stokes bristles at the word ‘slave’ being used to describe her ancestors. ‘They were enslaved. I prefer that word,’ she said. ‘They were forced to be slaves. It was a system. It was not who they were.’ She says it again, her voice firm and brooking no discussion: ‘They were enslaved.’

It is no wonder some black Americans emerge from the experience of looking for their ancestors wondering what their role in America really is. Lisa Salley is a successful engineer whose work has taken her all over the world. She has also traced many of her family’s roots to the town of Smoaks and the surrounding countryside in South Carolina. Now, Lisa is driven by a mission to tell her family story for the next generation. ‘I didn’t want my nieces and nephews to define themselves via MTV,’ she said. ‘I wanted to preserve our story before it is lost.’ Her work has united disparate strands of family and she is planning a huge reunion in Smoaks next summer. But she has found slave ancestors, and mulattos, too—usually the result of rape by white masters. She has found evidence of her family being split up on the whims of their white owners. It has left Salley with a sense that she does not really belong in the land of her birth. ‘I have no intention of retiring in the US. Going other places there was a general acceptance of me just based on my professional qualifications. I have never felt that in America,’ she said.

But amid all the horror of exploring slavery, there are positive aspects at play. No matter what colour your skin, the search for an ancestor pays tribute to a life forgotten: a life every bit as valuable as anyone else’s. For many black Americans, the moment of discovering a slave ancestor has a sweetness to it. A vindication, too. ‘I call it a genealogy high,’ said McClain. ‘It makes it all worth it.’

The great southern writer William Faulkner once wrote: ‘The past is not dead. In fact, it’s not even past.’ Nothing illustrates that more in America than the identity revolutions being inspired by genealogy and DNA research. They show that actions and people hidden in the past—even to the point of being encoded in someone’s genes—can profoundly shape the present. Even change it. On one hand they can expose divisions and remind us of the cruelty of history. One complaint of many blacks researching their family histories is that white families still often refuse to help them. Native Americans often complain they are swamped by ‘American Indian Princess syndrome’, because every white person wants native DNA in their past. In a world of minority grants, scholarships and Indian gambling rights, any debate over DNA and race could easily also become an argument over resources.

But just as often there are happier moments that show how rigid ideas of race and identity are beginning to melt in America. Salley had one of those moments. In researching her family she discovered a slave ancestor who had children with her white master, Thomas Kinsey. She then traced the Kinseys to their modern descendants and got in touch. She met up with an elderly white woman, Myrtle Linder. Though she was white and Salley was black, the two women were likely distant cousins. Linder was feisty, still chopping wood in her own backyard despite her advanced years. Salley recognised the same independent spirit she felt in herself. ‘I thought: “Now these are my people, too,”’ she laughed. And they were. The two women became firm friends. After all, they were family. Skin colour did not matter. It is individual moments like this that can slowly change a nation.