Criticism — From the June 2014 issue

America’s Ancestry Craze

Making sense of our family-tree obsession

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From the start of my ancestry research, there was a defiant aspect to my truth-seeking: Okay, we’re talking about blood, we’re supposed to pledge allegiance to blood, but what does that mean, exactly? My father and his parents were delighted to tell you about my grandma’s pre-revolutionary Bailey ancestry, and our connection, by marriage, to the Mannings of football fame, so I was surprised when my mom told me that the Newton family patriarch, her grandfather-in-law, evaded her questions about his lineage. Ordinarily this was a man who liked to hold forth, the sort of guy who told women at a restaurant what they were going to eat and then ordered for them.

Soon I was spending whole weekends mired in the U.S. Census, working backward through history. Eventually I arrived at one Jesse Newton, a farmer born and married in North Carolina in the early 1800s, who later bought land in Drew County, Arkansas, where he served as treasurer and was “granted a license to retail spirituous and vinous liquors.” There he raised his nine children — four daughters and five sons — along with a boy who’d been orphaned at the age of three. According to the “slave schedules” of the 1860 Census, which list the ages and genders but not the names of those enslaved, Newton owned six people. Josiah Hazen Shinn’s Pioneers and Makers of Arkansas (1908) refers to him as “an honored citizen.” While there was plenty about this I would have liked to disavow, if there was something my father’s family wanted to hide, I couldn’t find it; nor could I trace the Newtons any further back.

In 2009 I tracked down my granddad’s cousin Wallace Newton, then eighty-three, to see whether he could verify that Jesse Newton was in fact my fourth and his second great-grandfather. He could not. “We had the same problem that you had,” he told me. “We just could not get anyone to give us information.” His daughter theorized that we might be related to the Newton Boys, the notorious early-twentieth-century bank robbers, which would have delighted me. But while that family was descended from a Jesse Newton of Arkansas, and I’m increasingly convinced ours was, too, these are two different men. I haven’t found a tie between our lines, just proximity and similar names.

I suppose I was hoping for some refutatory reveal. Having failed to find one the traditional way, I turned to DNA. What would my genome reveal about my father, the 5'7½" amateur eugenicist who’d bequeathed to me his poor eyesight; his unimpressive stature; his awkward, clipped way of walking; and his near-homicidal intolerance of many common noises? He’d married my mother because he’d thought they would have smart children together, and in the ensuing years he’d catalogued my many shortcomings — from lackluster math skills to a thyroid condition — and accused her of failing to warn him about her “defective genes.”

According to 23andMe, my mother is 99.9 percent European, with a tiny bit of Oceanian ancestry, and I am 99.7 percent European, 0.1 percent North African, and 0.2 percent some other, presently unclassified thing. My North African and unclassified genes must have come from my father, an irony I somehow doubt he would allow himself to enjoy. The discovery that I am almost exactly as white as I have always appeared was deeply, irrationally disappointing, as though having greater mixed ancestry would somehow have mitigated the wrongs of my forebears. Many people have the opposite response. The white supremacist Craig Cobb, who sought to establish an all-white town in North Dakota in 2012, took a DNA test to establish the purity of his bloodline and discovered on live television that his genome is in fact 14 percent sub-Saharan African, a larger percentage than a person would ordinarily share with a great-grandparent. “Statistical noise,” he called the result. Later he announced plans to be retested. “I had no idea, or I wouldn’t have gone and done that, and I still don’t believe it,” he said.

So genealogy may be a big-tent hobby, but its practitioners congregate uneasily together. In the 23andMe forums, a subscriber reported that one of her partner’s DNA matches rejected a request to share information with the following note: “There has just got to be something wrong with Relative Finder. I can’t be related to either you or your ‘friend’ — we just don’t have BROWN people in our family.” Andrea Badger, one of the site’s “ancestry ambassadors,” reported in the comments that another user had encountered a similar situation when one of his matches “thought he was Jewish and sent a message full of racial slurs.” Elsewhere on the site, a user with the screen name RyanMD started a contentious thread entitled “Are Ashkenazi Jews and other ethnic groups really smarter than others?”

The writer and Los Angeles Times reporter Joe Mozingo discovered, while researching his own heritage, that his last name is not, as his family had always said, Italian, but one of two African surnames known to have survived slavery. In The Fiddler on Pantico Run, he describes encounters with distant cousins who refuse to accept the overwhelming evidence he shows them. Even among close family members who profess to find the story fascinating, he told me, he detected an “undercurrent of resistance to the idea” that their name came from Africa.

In my research, I’ve identified common ancestors with only a handful of matches, all of them predominantly European. One remembers visiting my second great-grandmother’s house in the Mississippi Delta; another says that a fourth great-grandmother on my mother’s side lived in poverty but “kept her bed with the featherbed squared off and covered in beautiful linens.” Looking at photos of Kristin Gossett (née Arnos), a third cousin twice removed on my dad’s mother’s side, I see echoes of my first cousin’s smile. Kevin Kinchen, an Ancestry.com DNA match who’s probably my fifth cousin on my mom’s mother’s side, has a background in pattern recognition, private investigation, and forensics. He calls genealogy “the ultimate puzzle box.” It never has to have an end, he says.

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