"Kunta could tell that some were Foulah, Jola, Serere and Wolof . . . but most were Mandinkas."
-- From "Roots," by Alex Haley, 1976.
And during their African journey from slavery to freedom, they became Jeffersons, Johnsons, Richardsons and Wrights. And Al Sharpton, too.
So Sharpton, civil rights activist, is descended from a slave owned by relatives of segregationist senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina. Big deal. How about whether Sharpton is descended from Mandinka royalty in Mali or sheep herders in Gambia? Better yet, trace Al to Lucy, the graceful Australopithecus anamensis, "First Humanlike Woman of the World," who lived in Ethiopia about 3.2 million years ago. Now we're talking genealogy.
Otherwise, we're just splitting hairs on a gnat's butt. Can we move into the 21st century, please? The encoded human genome ought to render such Sharpton-Thurmond connections as insignificant knots on a dead "family tree." It's a forest out there, and everything is tangled up.
Take the 2003 discovery by molecular anthropologists that you are more likely to be lactose intolerant if your ancestors were primarily herders after the Neolithic agrarian revolution. That's news you can use. Say, for instance, that your digestive eruptions keep your spouse up at night. Now you can blame it on your Sicilian, Greek, Bantu or Kalahari bushmen ancestry. But you've still got to pop a couple of Beanos.
The upshot: Similarities among individuals far outweigh differences among artificially created "racial" groups.
As research historian Frank W. Sweet wrote in a 2004 online essay about race and DNA, we are inextricably mixed, right down to the marrow of our bones. If scientists find a certain genetic marker "at position 16q24.3 of your 16th chromosome," Sweet wrote, "then it is two-out-of-three times likely that you inherited it from a sub-Saharan ancestor." (See Sweet's essay at
Little wonder that researchers have determined that "some so-called 'black' Americans [about 5.5 percent] have less DNA admixture of African ancestral origin than do some so-called 'white' Americans." And we're not talking about "black" people who knowingly "pass for white." These are "white" people who'd probably have a heart attack if somebody told them the truth -- that they were nobody special, just ordinary human beings.
Among Americans, according to the 2004 Census, about 23 percent call themselves "German Americans," nearly 16 percent say they are "Irish Americans," another 13 percent claim to be "English Americans." "African Americans" claim 10 percent of the population, and "Italian Americans" about 6 percent. Somewhere in there are the 1 percent who call themselves "white." But it's all a myth.
Former secretary of state Madeleine Albright learns that she is of Jewish descent. And the world is astounded. Yvette Silverman Melanson of New York used to wear just a gold Star of David, but now she also wears a heavy strand of turquoise beads because she learned that some of her relatives are Navajo. "Unbelievable," Melanson declares. Black writer Thulani Davis discovers Confederates in her genealogical attics. When she saw pictures of her relatives for the first time, "I went, 'Oh my God, it's my hairline; it's my raccoon eyes." Peel back that ethnic onion all you want, and everybody finds the same thing: deceased humans who walked on feet of clay.
Besides, who needs the kind of headache that white and black "descendants" of Thomas Jefferson are causing one another? The whites don't get to inherit Monticello, and the blacks don't get 40 acres and a mule. All they get is an invitation to the "family" reunion and the chance to sit at a big picnic table sneering at one another.
"I had never really traced my family history, particularly on my father's side, since my parents separated when I was going on 10 years old," Sharpton, 52, said at a news conference Sunday. "You think about the distance you've come, you think about how brutal it was, you think about how life must have been like for him," he said of his great-grandfather. "And then you start wondering whether or not he would be proud or disappointed in what we have done."
If Sharpton really wants to muse on such minutia, he might consider this: About one-third of so-called "white" Americans have been found by geneticists to possess 2 to 20 percent of recent African admixture. That's roughly 74 million whites. For all he knows, Thurmond could be a descendant of the Sharpton clan. Then, instead of Al expressing "shock," we'd have Strom rolling in his grave.