Criticism — From the June 2014 issue

America’s Ancestry Craze

Making sense of our family-tree obsession

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My father always stressed the importance of blood — being worthy of it, showing loyalty to it, protecting what he called the purity of it. He was, as people sometimes say of well-educated racists, not a stupid man. He had a master’s degree in aerospace engineering, and he was valedictorian of his law-school class. But he considered slavery a benevolent institution that should never have been disbanded, and he viewed his and my fair skin as a mark of superiority.

The world being what it was in my post–civil rights era youth, he had retreated to an ardent, evangelical separatism. “Birds of a feather flock together,” he was fond of saying. He said it at the breakfast table; he said it on the way to the pool; he said it while covering the faces of brown children in my storybooks with my mother’s nail polish. Sometimes he closed the pages before the polish dried, so they stuck together, leaving nursery rhymes unrhyming and stories filled with gaps. He often recounted his triumph over being assigned, as an undergrad, an Asian-American roommate: “I marched right over to the housing office and told them I wasn’t going to live with a Chinese.”

The Family Photograph Tree, a lithograph published by Currier & Ives, c. 1871. Courtesy the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

The Family Photograph Tree, a lithograph published by Currier & Ives, c. 1871. Courtesy the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

I remember being eight or nine, traipsing around some godforsaken family parcel in the Mississippi Delta, dried-out cotton boll in one hand, burlap sack filled with more in the other, my younger sister trailing behind, as our father tried to impress on us the momentousness and immediacy of various Civil War battles. Our forebears had been killed on or near that very land, I recall his saying. Mostly I remember wanting to go home to my mother in Miami. She had opted out of this trip, as she often did toward the end of my parents’ marriage, and I consoled myself by imagining her contempt.

The first time I saw a family tree, a year or two later, my father carried it into my bedroom with tears in his eyes to explain why he and my mother should not and could not divorce. Flicking through pages of unfamiliar names, he explained that nowhere in our branch of his mother’s mother’s tree, all the way back to a Revolutionary War lieutenant born in Virginia in 1755, had anyone ever divorced. It would be a terrible scandal and would bring ignominy on his grandmother’s line and on our family — on our blood, he probably said — if he and my mother were to become the first.

I’d never seen him cry before. Though I was always pleading with my mother to leave him, I cried, too.

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