Ethnic diversity and the politicization of genealogy in America

o-diversity-facebookSocial media channels, and Facebook in particular, have been a huge boon for a new generation of genealogists. Whether you’re a novice or a professional genealogist – or fall somewhere in-between – social media and blogging easily allow genealogy enthusiasts to make contact with others researching the same families online. The sharing of information, research findings, and discussing these finds, is part and parcel of the new genealogy experience. You can post a query or some research findings within a Facebook genealogy group and receive responses almost immediately.

I know I’ve made some important breakthroughs via this route. For instance, I might be uncertain if I found the correct records for someone I’m researching, or if the records I’m reviewing actually belong to someone else with the same name. Typically, a direct descendant from that line will provide the information and evidence I need. For me, this is one of the strengths of using social media channels as part of my research.  The other, of course, is meeting distant relations who are also working on the same family or families that I am.

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Today’s genealogy isn’t the same genealogy of your grandparents’ day.  The basics still are.  You know, the best practice, day-to-day aspects of genealogy. However, gone are the days of having to entirely work on your own. Today’s genealogy is a very social affair. It’s one of the other things I love about it. Social media can provide a much needed support group when things get frustrating, challenging, or downright difficult. It’s kind of like having an online cheer-leading squad cheering you on.

Over the past few years I’ve begun to notice a dark side to online genealogy when it comes to Americans in particular. This dark side comes in the form of internet trolls, the bane of any social media platform. Actually, I’ve done more than notice.  I’ve had to deal directly with my own online trolls. As America grapples with the issues of race, criminal justice, the deaths of unarmed civilians, and a toxic presidential election cycle, online trolls have become active. Online genealogy groups and forums are not immune.

The trolls I’ve seen online, and have dealt with myself, cover the melanination spectrum: from the least melaninated Americans (e.g. people with a predominantly or exclusively European ancestral identity), to the more melaninated Americans (e.g. people of colour and/or African-American). Interestingly, both sides of this tedious trolling coin have mirror arguments, which I’ll get to in a bit.

A few months ago, a Facebook post popped up on my timeline from an African-American genealogy Facebook group I joined. One of the members had taken an autosomal DNA test and, as a result, discovered she was a direct descendant of Augustine Washington, the half-brother of George Washington. She was surprised. She was excited by certain implications.  And she wanted to know how she could use this knowledge to connect to other descendants from the same line. At no point was she boastful. She posted what she had discovered. In doing so, she and I (as well as some others within the group), were able to work out how, exactly, we were related to one another.

Then came what I can only describe as a highly charged, angry, politicized comment which soured the whole thread of conversation that had occurred. Boiled down, his contribution ranged from: “You know your ancestor was raped”, to “why you people gonna glorify that your ancestors were raped”, to “his white family won’t want to know you”, to “that make you better than black people?, to “Ya’ll aint woke”.

I will give the administrator of this particular group credit.  She took him task for his comments and the tone of voice used. Other group members piled in too, turning it into a teaching experience.

I wish I could say that experience was rare or a one-off.  Far from it.

My contribution to that particular comment was straightforward.  Not all African Americans or people of colour will share a common African-descended ancestor. I used an example from my own experience. I’d spent around six months or so working with a group of 5 Roane DNA cousins on Ancestry.com, Gedmatch, and Family Tree DNA. All of us identify as either people of colour (due to a very mixed ancestry) or African American. In the end, it turned out that we didn’t share a single common black or mulatto ancestor between us.  What we did share were different Scots-Irish Roane men, who were enslavers, from different branches of the same Scots-Irish Roane family tree. I’m going to repeat that.  None of us had a common African-descended ancestor.  Instead, we were all descendants of six men who were descendants of Archibald Gilbert Roane of northern Ireland.

Counting the number of our own family members who were also direct descendants of Archibald Gilbert Roane, we’d worked out that there were a couple of thousand other people of colour and African Americans who are also direct descendants of Archibald Gilbert Roane. That’s just from six people. Now scale this number up for all the thousands of other African Americans and people of colour who have no idea that they connect to this family.  Thousands of Americans who have no idea they are related through this one family alone.

Further research of the African-descended women who were the mothers of these mixed race lines may yet show that we do share common African-descended ancestors.  For now, we know we connect on the Scots-Irish side of the family.

Had we never researched the Scots-Irish side of our family, we would have never been able to make the connection as to how we were all related.

There is also a practical side to researching this side of my ancestry. It’s the only way I can trace the movement of my enslaved ancestors as they passed from one family member to another down the centuries. In order to trace them, I have to know who enslaved them. This is done through researching the enslavers’ probate and tax records as well as any journals, bills of sale, and correspondence that mentions them. It’s how you build a family tree for those ancestors who were enslaved.  There is no getting around it.

I raised a second point in response to this trolling comment.  I have around a thousand different African-descended ancestral lines in my tree at the time of writing this. There is a mulatto at the end of every single one of these familial lines that I’ve researched. Every. Single. One.

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DNA triangulation has enabled to me identify a growing number of European forefathers and foremothers. Yes, I said ‘foremothers’.  Two of my mixed family lines, the Byrds/Birds and the Buggs, are the documented descendants of English women who were indentured servants who had relationships with African or African-descended men. European DNA accounts for 45% of my autosomal genome (with an additional 20% European Jewish DNA). I have as much European DNA as someone who has one African-descended parent and one European-descended parent. Only my results are an accumulation of 400 years of European, African, and Native American descended people producing children together. Regardless of how those unions happened. So what am I, and genealogy researchers like me, supposed to do? Ignore an entire part of our ancestry?

The chap who trolled that Facebook post didn’t really have a response. To be fair, he’d been taken to task by so many that he probably couldn’t bring himself to comment on any further.

Now for the other side of the coin.

I’ve been spoiled when it comes to meeting my less- melaninated cousins from the Sheffey and Roane sides of my family. It has been a pleasure getting to know them. I’m laughing as I write this next bit: it’s also been fun discovering that the family quirks which run within my family are universal, regardless of melanin levels.  We Sheffeys, for instance, are a political tribe. You’d think we ate politics for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. There’s also a real “live and let live” commonality among the wider family. And we aren’t backwards at coming forwards either. The Roanes?  Well, that side of the family is a unique combination of being statesmanlike and fun-loving. The Roanes seems to have been that way for as far back as the first Roane to land on these shores back in the early 18th Century. The Roanes are  very convivial bunch.

My less-melaninated DNA cousins who share the same Quaker ancestry as myself have also, by and large, been great people to get to know. Not a day goes by when one or another of us post something on Facebook, whether it’s just to say hello or “hey, do you know anything about this Mendenhall family group I’ve just stumbled across in Chester County, Pennsylvania?”

That’s the way online genealogy ought to be. And, by and large, it is. 

Sure, I have a number of less-melaninated DNA cousins in the southern United States who don’t want to know they are related to anyone who isn’t from a majority European background. I have more than enough southern cousins who are happy and excited to work together for me to spend any time dwelling on those who don’t, merely because we have different amounts of melanin. Life, as the saying goes, is just too short.

The trolls, on the other hand, are something quite different.

Yesterday, I received a comment (now deleted) from a self-described white nationalist about an article I’d written ages ago when I’d discovered that I was related to former US Governors, Presidents, and the framers of the US Constitution. His comment was simple and straightforward: “You’ll go for a good price when President Trump puts you on the [slave] block. That’s all that [blood] is good for.”

That’s mild compared to other expletive-laced, n-bomb-laced, vitriolic comments I’ve read via my blog. I’m still mystified about what trolls like these hope to achieve. If they expect such comments will stop me in my tracks, they are sadly mistaken. I’m made of far tougher stuff that that.

As many of you know, I’ve lived most of my life in the UK. My early years there coincided with the counter-culture and counter-class movement of the late 1980s through the 1990s. This is when the rave culture, that great social class leveler, exploded across Britain. To say I met a wide-range of people from every walk of life would be an understatement. Many of my raving acquaintances became life-long friends, including the ‘blue blooded’ sons and daughters of aristos. I’ll tell you, it’s something of a shock when someone invites a group of tired and weary revelers back to their house only to discover that where they live is a manor house that’s been in their family pretty much forever.

You couldn’t guess that the scruffy tree hugger you shared a ciggie with was the son of an Earl. Or that the flower power girl with the mala beads and flowers in her hair, the one  you shared a bottle of water with and some laughs, was the daughter of a Duke.  Now imagine 20 odd years later you discover you’re (very) distantly related to some of the very same people you hung out with, partied with, and became friends with. When I rang them up to tell them the news, and went over exactly who our common ancestors were, and how we connected, they loved it. Some of these friends were even more excited about the news than I was.

I wonder how British aristocrats can be so accepting, nonplussed, and utterly chilled about being related to a person of colour…yet there are Americans who act like they have received the worst news ever in the entirety of their life. Or they find such a thing disgusting, something to be reviled.

So, far from being cowed, I’m working on a new project: The American Family Tree. The aim of the project is to show how Americans – regardless of ‘race’, religion, socio-economic background, geography, culture or any other ‘divisive’ factor – are related to one another; even if they have only a single Colonial-era family line.

There’s an interesting twist to both sides of this coin.  I’m a naturally inquisitive person. I also try to turn contentious situations into learning opportunities – as much for myself as anyone else. I want to know what makes people, and particularly Americans, tick.  So I asked some of the trolls I’ve come across a simple question: have you researched your own family or taken a DNA test. Of the 20 or so people I asked, the answer didn’t come as a surprise. 90% said they had not. Roughly half of those who said no went on to say they didn’t need to take a DNA test or research their own family; in short, they said they knew who they were and where they came from.

As for those who engaged in the form of trolling I’ve written about, and were also engaged in genealogy and DNA testing? Two-thirds had no interest in exploring any part of their genetic inheritance or history that came from any other ethnicity other than the one they identified with.

I’m fine with these two stances. To each his or her own. You’re free to choose as best suits you. However, don’t attack those who also choose for themselves, and wish to delve into the parts of their genetic and genealogical inheritance from all of their ancestors, whoever those ancestors might be and from whatever ethnic group they happen to come from. This blog amply demonstrates that I write about all of my known ancestry. I do my best to give each ethnicity equal time and weighting. Your right to choose not to explore your full heritage does not trump my right to explore and discuss my own. Our choices in this regard don’t make one or the other of us better than the other. Just different. Our journeys, and what we want to achieve for ourselves through our respective journeys, are different. You do you. And I’ll do me.

Genealogy is challenging enough without the added distraction and unpleasantness of trolling.

Genealogy can be, and perhaps should be, a unifying force. It can be a powerful and positive bridge to span the gap of discord as well as opening a powerful and productive channel of conversation.  That’s my aim at any rate. We’ll see.

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3 thoughts on “Ethnic diversity and the politicization of genealogy in America

  1. I am a much less melanation genealogist researching my African American lines. I enjoyed this article very much and could relate to some of these same things from another perspective. At times, I have not been “accepted” by other researchers because I do not look like one would expect with my blonde hair and blue eyes. You are right on about how genealogy is a social affair. More than ever before, I think we put ourselves out there hoping to make these wonderful connections, only to find not everyone wants us to join in the conversation…sadly, it feels like its because we are not dark enough or light enough on that melanated level scale. PS…I love how you use that in your article!
    Again, I very much enjoyed your article.

    • Thank you for your insight you shared and for your comment about the article. I’m experimenting with different ways to write about ethnic differences without using the old standbys like white and black. It isn’t easy. I agree about the importance of conversations, as you’ve mentioned in your comment. I honestly believe that genealogy can have a role to play in getting certain conversations started between different communities.

  2. Just want to say I love your blog after having stumbled across it on a search. I’m only in the beginnings of my own personal journey with my genealogy and blogs like yours are a great resource. Having originally become interested due to my interest in Ancient Egypt, I eventually realized just how little I know about my own immediate family for all my knowledge of ancient people long gone. These articles and resources have been helpful. Also kudos to you on parrying the trolls. I’ve been called every name in the book as I’ve read into and discussed things regarding genealogy, African-American history and connections among groups. Nice to know I’m not alone there and that people are continuing to do great work trolls to the contrary.

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