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