Tuesday, April 03, 2007

family name

In the fourth chapter of William Faulkner's canonical short story, "The Bear," a sixteen year old Ike McCaslin questions why a slave (Eunice) would drown herself-- because blacks, if Ike's opinion of them reflects Faulkner's in this instance, (always) endure. Suicide does not, in Ike's mind, fit nicely into the characteristics he has assigned to blacks. Uncovering the reason for this self-imposed drowning necessarily requires the reconstruction of the McCaslin family tree, which, we come to know, demands tracing both the white and black branches. As our 21st Century minds might expect, those branches inevitably and tangly coalesce. Eventually Ike twigs (pun intended) that Eunice drowned herself because she discovered the McCaslin incestuous secret. In other words, Eunice had a sexual relationship with the white patriarch, Old Carothers McCaslin; this relationship produced a daughter, Tomasina. In a move that Gayl Jones would echo thirty years later, Old Carothers then has a sexual relationship with Tomasina, which produces a son, Terrel. Upon discovering this, Eunice kills herself six months before Terrel's birth; Tomasina dies in childbirth. (Because, if you lightly track the theme of incest in 20th century American literature like I do, somebody--usually the baby--has to die.) Horrified, instead of committing suicide, Ike repudiates his claim to the "cursed" McCaslin land, becomes a carpenter, and (not wanting to continue the line) intentionally does not have children of his own.

I was reminded of Faulkner--and the sexual transgressions that often influence his fictional family trees-- as I read an article in the New York Times about black woman reuniting with her white "DNA" cousin. As the story goes Vy Higginsen, a black woman from Harlem long interested in her "roots," took an ethno-ancestry test two years ago. She assumed that she would have black and some Indian blood. However, results showed that though she had no former Cherokee chief in her ancestral past, more than a quarter of her blood was European.

Insert Marion West, a white Missourian in his mid-70s. He also took a test in 2005, and submitted his results to an online database that tracks those with the surname West. That database showed that West and Higginsen (whose uncle, James West had also submitted his results to the database) were distant, "DNA" cousins.

I will quiet my desires to discuss the semantics (of this article, at least) around ethno-ancestry-- though i admit that when it comes to DNA, we are talking about blood in the literal-- in exchange for another brief plea for the restoration of American Negro (or just plain ole black) as a more accurate way for present day African Americans (as in US-born, not African immigrants) to identify themselves racially.

It is revealed in the article that Marion West's paternal grandfather fought for the Confederacy, and that his ancestors may have owned slaves. Thinking about that distinct possibility in conjunction with another recent genealogical study which revealed that Al Sharpton's ancestors were once owned by Strom Thurmond's famil,y inspires me to reiterate how imperative it is that blacks regard and (re)assert themselves as integral and primary participants in the project of America, that slavery was no ancillary by-product of the democracy imagined by our white Founding Fathers, but rather an intrinsic aspect of our very distinct American culture. By continually reconnecting ourselves to another place (that most of us haven't visited, that isn't even a monolithic country, but a place with three times the people the United States has) first with the pre-hyphen moniker, African, we implicitly agree that American means white, and that we have been almost mere footnotes in its history.

The middle- and upper-class qualifications notwithstanding, I'm intrigued by the possibilities of DNA testing and the process of ethno-ancestry. Perhaps, in an ironic twist, it will be the blood that solidifies our interracial ties to each other, and further validates the reality that blacks have not merely been just visiting the United States on a work visa for the past 500 years. Perhaps we begin that reassertion by naming ourselves-- again.

"Oh what a tangled web we weave."**

**Yes, please assume that Sir Walter Scott quotation was intentionally used to conjure up Mark Twain.


language alone protects us from the scariness of things with no names. language alone is meditation. ~toni morrison


Blogger Hollambeeee said...

it is this post that makes me think that you would love Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route by Saidiya Hartman...because what you assert in this post is very near to her discussions about (re)connecting with a land that is *not* our home in any serious sense...

however, i am not as hopeful as you regarding DNA testing because i believe it is patently tied to marketability and commercializiation: that is, it's a capitalist project wherein i believe people are literally trying to "own" a piece of their history. something about that doesn't sit well with me. and a recent presentation Henry Louis Gates gave at Emory just validates my wariness for these DNA tests...they're literally selling myths to people (re: their "african" origins)

3/4/07 21:42  
Blogger summer m. said...

@holla: i definitely see (and mildly acknowledged) your point. please believe, i def. understand the pitfalls of testing, and i'm only interested in its possibilities regarding a very specific thing. and i'm not so much hopeful, but intrigued--as i said. i really don't want to make those two terms synonyms in this case. i guess i should note that gattaca is one of my favorite movies; brave new world one of my fave books.

we could go on and on regarding the gates aspect of this (i'm in agreement), but my guess is that's prolly a convo we should have in person, or at least outside of blog comments.

thanx for reading,

4/4/07 09:24  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm not going to lessen the intellectual weight of your post (and it is heavy) with a lot of my "silly" shit, but you know I feel you on the assertion that we should just be black and fucking be black. Like you said, we are Americans. I just don't know how I am supposed to get any sense of identity, mooring, anything that relates to my actual life from a place that no living member of my family has ever inhabited for any length of time. And when you get that DNA test, and they tell you your bloodline can be traced back to "Tanzania" or "Sudan" - tell me - what the hell does that mean? There are ethnic groups, tribes, villages, divisions that we don't know a damn thing about. Like you said, Africa is a continent, it is broken into countries, and even those entities are arbitrary. Being told your people come from Tanzania is like being told your people come from America. America has 50 states, each state has counties, each county contains dozens of cities, each city is filled with hundreds to millions of homes. If someone told you that your ancestors came from America, you'd roll your eyes and wonder who the hell this asshole is trying to play with. Yet, black people sweat this whole "Africa" thing. I'm just saying... Knowing the general region in Africa from whence your ancestors came doesn't necessarily connect you to the so-called motherland. I'd rather go down to Alabama and sit on the floor of the plantation shack where my great-great-grandmother actually slept than wander the steppe of a foreign country, hoping to accidentally step into the faded footprints of an ancestor whose name I don't even know. It just seems more real to me.

5/4/07 20:27  

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