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America’s Ancestry Craze


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.”

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is working on a book about the science and superstition of ancestry.

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