By now, it is common knowledge in this country that one of our "revered" Founding Fathers, the author of the Declaration of Independence, original "state's rights" confederate, plantation slave-owner and third President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, fathered children with Sally Hemings, one of his housekeeping slaves. To me, the controversy that continues to surround this matter, despite DNA testing indicating the veracity of the claim, is an indication of the deep-seated racism in this country. People are uncomfortable with the idea that their cherished Thomas Jefferson (about whom most of them know next to nothing) would participate in the taboo of interracial relations, even less with the revelation that Jefferson was a rapist. (What was Sally going to do? Tell him "no?") But, let's leave aside the issue of tax-evading power-grabbers deified as "patriots" and "lovers of liberty," shall we? Just for now.
|Thomas Jefferson: Slave-owning "lover of liberty," or just a plain ol' schmuck?|
The reason I mention this historical item at all is because the descendants of the union between Jefferson and Hemings, are caught in a racial identity void. Are they black? Are they white?
When one starts to think about one's own racial identity, one tends to go back only three or four (or maybe five) generations to identify with the people from whom one is descended. I would venture that even avid genealogists can do little more than that. Why? Because the number of people involved, the number of people from whom one can claim direct ancestry, grows exponentially with each generation.
Consider: we all have two parents, each of whom had two parents, each of whom had two parents. So, going back 10 generations (approximately 200 years) we could have as many as 210, or 1024 direct ancestors. Suffice it to say that one does not have to go back very far in the human chronicle to become overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of people involved. Of course, this does not take into account duplicate ancestors who may appear more than once in the family tree. (Cousins marrying cousins and the like. You know how people are...)
Some of my cousins (on the English-German side) have made a real effort in studying my family's genealogy. When we had our family reunion a couple years ago, they had constructed a fabulously complex family tree which was a monument to dedication. The diagram featured hundreds of names, along with dates of birth and death. This tree dealt only with a single thread of my own ancestry: the thread from which the name "Metzger" is derived. The majority of the names on the diagram were, at this point in Time's March, just that: names. We know nothing of the people. One can easily imagine that among them were Irish immigrants, African slaves, Cherokees, Hurons, Frenchmen, British Tories, and God knows who else.
So, were I to say (as I often do) that I am English-German on Mom's side, and Filipino-Mexican on Dad's side, I would be basing that statement on the people in my ancestry of whom I am aware. But that extends back only to my great-grandparents. And, of those eight people, I know only a scarce minimum about seven of them, and nothing at all about the eighth.
Let us suppose then, that ten generations back, I have some 800 direct ancestors. It seems rather unlikely that they were all German or English or Filipino or Mexican. (And, what is a "Mexican," anyway, other than an amalgamation of Spanish conquistadors, American Mayans or Aztecs, imported African slaves, and German or French emigrants?)
When viewed in this light, racial identity becomes a very tricky topic, does it not? I don't believe that anyone can claim to be purely German or Senegalese or Chinese or Brazilian or anything else. And besides, whether you subscribe to the Adam and Eve fable, or to Darwinian rationality, we all come from the same people anyway.
If you are interested in learning more about racial identity, I refer you to my friend fatima and ahmed's son ridwan laher, where he examines racial identity in the contexts of politics and social justice. Also my friend Stewart King has written a book, Blue Coat or Powdered Wig, which is an examination of racial identity specific to people of color in the 18th century French Caribbean. Both of these men are highly-educated academicians.
When I was young, one of my cousins told me that genealogically, I could make a claim for the throne of England. Indeed, that I was descended from the same people as the Royal Family! So, I suppose if some catastrophe were to befall the 50 or 100 million persons with more direct claims, I might one day be coronated in West Minster Abbey.
And, let me tell ya, when that day comes, there's gonna be some changes!