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Writing our own family histories

I've spent a considerable portion of the last two weeks hunting the history of my blood. Pedigree is big in America, and for many of us, it's no trouble to identify the nationalities, and even native counties, of our forebears — grandmother from Germany, grandfather from County Cork.

This is a ritual in which very few African-Americans can participate. With some notable exceptions, our mother country is the bygone Empire of American Slavery — anything before that is mysterious to us. This is why, in recent years, a large number of African-Americans have taken to DNA tests. The possibility of a specific pedigree — Ibo, Ashanti, Ga or even Irish — holds promise for African-Americans, too, enjoying the American ritual of blood.

My aims were more pedestrian — no DNA tests, just a short call to my mother for the names of my forebears, and then some time with the digitized 1880 census. Rather easily, I found my great-great-great grandmother was born in 1830, in Worcester County, Md., and was listed as a "Mulatto." Her children, including my great-great grandfather, were also listed as "Mulatto." I haven't dug enough to figure out what, precisely, that means — beyond the possibility that her father was "white."

But it wasn't news. A cursory look at my family reveals (as with many "blacks"), not quite an Obama-esque rainbow, but certainly something that could rival your average Puerto Rican family. Likely, given the pictures of my paternal grandfather, my father's side has a similar story and, I suspect, and a generation or two closer. Still, there was something about the confirmation — even only a confirmation of a possibility — that left me dumbstruck.

I won't claim this is true for all or even most African-Americans, but for me, my identity as black person is part and parcel to virtually everything else about me. I am the product of two parents who met while attempting to follow in the footsteps of the martyred Malcolm X. I have lived all of my now 35 years in predominantly black neighborhoods. I went to college at a historically African-American school where I met my African-American spouse.

I became a writer, in large measure, because I was inspired by the black oral tradition as exemplified by Public Enemy, Rakim and Nas. Measuring all this against a theory of African-American genetics is one thing; measuring against your own likely genetics is somehow more real.

This proved to be another of those moments that I've had lately, where despite being someone who's studied race for the whole of my adult life, I'm struck by the stupidity of the entire business. I am black, and as the old saying goes, indeed proud. As a history geek, I find the African-American story as romantic, thrilling and Tolkienesque as anything I've ever read in any fantasy novel or comic book.

I'm pleased to live in that tradition, to be part of that moving, churning history. But even with all that great narrative, every once in a while there comes a moment when I think this whole business is so very, very stupid. This whole fight — one-drop or no drops — is stupid. Perhaps even that thought is itself stupid — this is what people do, in one form or another, all across the world. But that's cold comfort, and it's bracing to see the bridges of ancestry ripped apart by an arbitrary and unscientific idea.

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a writer and senior editor for the Atlantic and its website. His blog can be found at www.theatlantic.com/ta-nehisi-coates.

© 2010 Atlantic Media Group Inc.

Writing our own family histories 07/07/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 7, 2010 7:18pm]

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