The Truth is More Interesting than Lies

I caught part of Henry Louis Gates’s genealogy show, Finding Your Roots, on PBS this week (immediately before Trump’s address to Congress), and the episode I watched was great television. Gates locates Sean (P Diddy) Combs’s enslaved great-great-grandfather, 10-years-old at the time of the last South Carolina census before the Civil War, and identifies L.L. Cool J’s free black ancestors in Ohio. It’s reality TV of a sort, but the pathos of Combs reacting to  his great-great-grandfather as an unnamed entry in a record of a slaveowner’s property is genuinely affecting; L.L., whose songs and image often revolved around boxing as a metaphor, responds to the revelation that one of his uncles he never knew was a boxing champion with the rush of insight (“almost as though your DNA is a shadow of the past.”) Family stories are always interesting, perhaps especially the family we didn’t know we had. Gates comments on these moments in an excellent interview with the genetics writer Razib Khan this week:

Here’s the surprise:  initially, I thought the climax of the reveal would be the discovery of an African American’s African ethnic ancestry, on their mother’s mother’s line, or their father’s father’s line.  But to my surprise, this is not the part of the process that moved my guests the most.  What moved them was learning the names of their recent ancestors on their family trees, their great-grandparents and great-great grandparents, etc., the names of the people who had survived slavery and then the Jim Crow era.
I almost fell off my chair when the first person we interviewed began to cry, just seeing the name of an enslaved ancestor on a musky old document.  It was a revelation to me!  Distant ancestry–always, by definition, anonymous– is intellectually fascinating; recent ancestry–learning the names of the people on your own family tree going back a few hundred years–can be powerfully gripping emotionally.  And that has turned out to be true for all of the guests in all of our genealogy series.
It’s perhaps ironic that Razib published this interview (in which Gates goes on to list Razib himself among the genetics writers who have influenced Gates’s work) the day after yet another  defiantly know-nothing attempt to turn Razib into an unperson for writing bluntly and clearly about population genetics and ancestry, after the successful campaign by Gawker and Jamelle Bouie a couple years ago to get him fired by the New York Times the day after he was hired. This time,anthropologists  followed up by attacking one of Razib’s UCSD doctoral advisers just for defending him in the article. The striking thing about most of this is how disingenuous many academics are in trying to evade the same treatment.  Sarah Tishkoff, a University of Pennsylvania geneticist, is quoted in the article as saying, for example “We can see that there are differences [between population clusters], but then you have to ask the question, ‘What do those differences mean? Do they correlate with so-called racial classifications?’ No, actually they don’t.” This is despite Tishkoff herself co-authoring an article in Nature the first line of the Conclusions section of which begins:”The emerging picture is that populations do, generally, cluster by broad geographic regions that correspond with common racial classification (Africa, Europe, Asia, Oceania, Americas).”
Along these same lines, the anthropologist Jonathan Marks has released a new well-promoted book titled Is Science Racist, with the tag line, “Race is not the discovery of difference; it is the imposition of difference.” This seems exactly opposite to what Gates and the guests on his show have been exploring, which is that human differences are fascinating, thrilling things, whether they are our own or others:

Because genetic genealogy is, in the end, ultimately about yourself.  It is a way of learning more about the human being you have become.  You literally inherit DNA from all of the ancestors on your family tree going back 5 or 6 generations; but you also, it seems some-times, inherit preferences, habits, choices, inclinations, from recent ancestors, ancestors whom you have never met and will never meet. It’s uncanny.  But it is true.


 Gates goes on to say that while he is fascinated by what the Ancient Egyptians may have looked like, he wouldn’t expect them to be recognizably “black” or to have predominantly sub-Saharan ancestry.
Khan: When ancient DNA begins to come back my prediction is that ancient Egyptians will be shown to be a predominant mixture of Levantine farmers, Natufians, with a minority component of Sub-Saharan ancestry with strong affinities to the populations which in-habit the current Sudan. This mixture is probably old, and may date to the “Green Saha-ra” period, so well-mixed throughout the population. For those of Afrocentrist perspective would this be sufficient? Would it be controversial? To be frank, I know that in many circles population genetics is ignored when it is inconvenient to the narrative, so perhaps it would only be of scholarly interest?


Gates: Though we’ve inherited many representations of Egyptians created by themselves, we don’t yet know what the Egyptians actually looked like, because their mode of portraiture was not real-ism.


 However, if you consult “The Image of the Black in Western Art,” volume one (edited by David Bindman and myself), you will see that we know what colors they used to represent themselves, and the skin tones they used to represent Nubians, who lived south of the 3rd cataract.   And from what I can tell, they were the color of North Africans today, not white, not black, but somehow in-between.


 The Nubians–Egypt’s sometime trading-partner, sometime friend, sometime enemy, sometime conquered sometimes conqueror–however, are always represented as darker and with what anthropologists used to call “Negroid” features.


 Just look at the statues recently recovered by the great anthropologist, Charles Bonnet, of the Black Pharaohs of the Nile[5], the Nubians who conquered Egypt and established The 25th Dynasty.  Let’s just say that had they shown up in Mississippi in the 50’s, they’d be sitting in the back of the bus.


 The Egyptians and the Kushites or the Nubians exchanged many things, including, without a doubt, genetic material


 But on the whole, I believe that DNA will reveal exactly what you predict, and will show that the Nubians, by contrast, have a much larger component of sub-Saharan autosomal DNA, just like their descendants do today in the country of Sudan.


 I’ll take Nubia any day!  It was an extraordinary civilization, it lasted through three iterations from 3000 BC to about 400 AD (as Kerma, Napata, and Meroe), it had a written language (Meroitic), and it was undeniably and indisputably “black.”

This seems eminently sensible to me. The world is an interesting place, and the actual stories of how the human family came to be as it is today- characterized by dramatic differences among its several branches, intersecting but still distinct- are far more interesting than the confused postmodernist lies that are constantly told about it.

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