Genealogy – the records of descent, the pedigrees of mortals and gods, of genos, race, kind and offspring – is one of the great feats of the human imagination: a vast collection of stories, both intimate and cosmic, that bind the living to the dead and to one another, the past to the present and the present to what is to come. It is a primal work of culture, a narrative cornucopia encompassing stories about the origins of heroes and kings; stories about nations, whose gnarly, almost metaphysical genealogical connections are bound up in the Latin root natus and its cognates; stories about ancestors told around campfires, in books and now in hyperspace.
The work of the imagination in metaphorical genealogies is obvious. In Hesiod and Homer, for instance, the gods of earth and sky produce the Titans, Cronus and his sister, Rhea, who gives birth to Zeus and other Olympian gods. Achilles is a great-grandson of Zeus through his grandfather Aeacus; through his mother, Thetis, he is a grandson of one of the gods of the sea. Hector is a great-grandson of Zeus through Electra, one of the Pleiades. And so on.
The genealogy of Christ has a different sort of fictive logic because it has a telos: the fulfilment of the prophecy that the Messiah would be a descendant of the House of David. This precludes the pyrotechnic genealogical loops of the pagan gods, but it also illustrates the problem of genealogy more generally. Where to start and who to include? The Gospel of Luke takes the lineal patriarchal story back to Adam, which makes us all Sons of Man, if not of David in particular. Matthew starts with Abraham and arranges the ancestors in three neat groups: fourteen generations from Abraham to David; fourteen from David to the exile to Babylon; fourteen from the exile to the Christ. The two gospels are in concordance between Abraham and David and then they diverge. Matthew goes forwards in time; Luke starts with Jesus and goes back to Adam. It is a genealogy that leaves room for subplots in the family romance. Onan was killed not for masturbating but for threatening to disrupt a lineage – that is, for spilling his seed on the ground when he had sex with his dead brother’s wife. It was left to his father, Judah, the fourth son of Jacob and Leah, to do the genealogical work of getting from Abraham to David via the body of his daughter-in-law.
Two aspects of Jesus’s story speak to the role of the imagination in the history of how and why we represent descent as we do. One engages the visual imagination: the invention sometime around the first millennium of the Tree of Jesse (the father of David), representing the prophecy in Isaiah 11:1: ‘And there shall come forth a Rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots.’ We are still in the age of the family tree: with the root at the top or the bottom, it is in the branches and twigs that the serious work of the imagination is done.
Second is the question, still unresolved in Christological debates, which haunts Francesca Morgan’s A Nation of Descendants: what grounds for the claim of kinship do genealogical practices record and what follows from that claim? There is ‘genetic fetishism’, the modern form of the fetishism of blood; the fetishism of eidos (the essence, the species type, the organising idea); of matter-flesh; of adoption; of godparentage or step-parentage in various cultural contexts. All subsist as grounds of kinship by the human act of making them so.
Patriarchy – male descent – has historically dominated genealogy generally and the genealogy of Jesus in particular: all that begetting! But what exactly does descent entail? Joseph is of the House of David, but he is in no sense consanguineous; his is not the eidos that bore Christ’s essence and quickened the matter in Mary’s womb. That would be God. The prophecy is fulfilled because of a particular understanding of kinship: Joseph is the father because he was married to the child’s mother, because he accepted the child.
I take this story as a synecdoche for genealogy as an act of the human imagination. In that sense, genealogy can be a record of filiation that has nothing to do with biology: a branch of history, an exercise in historical interpretation. There are genealogies of feminism, of existentialism, of liberalism, of football dynasties, just as there are genealogies of families and peoples: they are all ways of constructing – of imagining – a past for the present.
Morgan’s book conflates the broader sense of genealogy as a culturally and politically embedded interpretive history – a history that depends on the way one understands its domain, on prior decisions of inclusion and exclusion from a record of descent, on the way kinship is construed and imagined – with the narrower sense of genealogy as a set of practices: research undertaken by an ever broader group of people using an ever wider and more widely available set of tools to record descent. A Nation of Descendants is almost entirely about genealogy in the second sense.
Morgan begins with what she calls ‘arguments about exclusion before the 1960s’. Self-styled Anglo-Saxon New England gentlemen researching their heroic freedom-loving ancestors, using a narrow range of hard-to-find and closely held records, were followed by more sociologically diverse white ethnic groups whose members formed their own descent organisations and wrote their own family histories. More women participated, and an extensive infrastructure of newspapers, libraries, specialised magazines and guidebooks grew up to support their work.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints practises proxy baptism of ancestors and occasionally of non-ancestors, something that demands the collection of vast genealogical records. The Mormons combed the earth for anything with a name on it, everything from birth, death and marriage registers to records of Hindu pilgrimages to sites in northern India kept on a clan-by-clan basis and dating back to 1094. Volunteers wrote and collected family histories by the hundreds of thousands. All this produced the greatest storehouse of genealogically exigent records ever assembled: more than 14.3 billion searchable names and images stored in a mountain vault near Salt Lake City designed to withstand a hydrogen bomb. As of 2010, 3.1 billion of these names had been indexed and published online; nearly a billion genealogically rich records from across the world are still being examined. Since the 1940s, the records collected by the Latter-Day Saints have been available to the public for free; today, they can be accessed on familysearch.org as well as in an easier to use form, combined if one wishes with links to a worldwide newspaper archive, behind a paywall at ancestry.com.
There was resistance by African and Native Americans and by Jews to the hegemonic genealogical practices of white Protestant men. By the early 20th century, descendants of New England free African Americans, such as W.E.B. Du Bois and the novelist Pauline Hopkins, began documenting their own and others’ Revolutionary War pedigree. Jews also started to publish family histories, create archives and found organisations such as the 1934 Society of Americans of Jewish Descent. Two women, one Cherokee-Creek, the other Chippewa, founded the First Daughters of America in 1930.
The turning point in Morgan’s story and the start of a four-chapter chronological account of the growth of genealogical practice in the United States (and by implication elsewhere) is Alex Haley’s spectacularly successful 1976 family history, Roots: The Saga of an American Family. Roots was a literary phenomenon: 46 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, 22 of them at number one. The ABC mini-series based on it was watched by 130 million people; the final episode remains the second most watched finale of any series in US TV history.
Haley intended his book as not just ‘a story of a family’ – his family – but as ‘the saga of us as a people’: a template for the stories of all Black Americans, one which seemed to demonstrate that despite the systematic destruction of formal family ties by chattel slavery, children of the African diaspora could still recover family histories stretching back to the continent of their ancestors. Drawing extensively on oral traditions, Haley claimed to have been able to trace his ancestry back seven generations to the Gambian village of Jufureh and a man called Kunta Kinte, who was captured and sold into slavery in America. Kinte, in his telling, became a mythological figure, almost the progenitor of a people.
The genealogical reconstruction and family history in Roots was almost immediately challenged. Haley was successfully sued for plagiarising a 1967 novel called The African. Large parts of the African story he told were shown to be without empirical foundation. But none of this mattered. Henry Louis Gates got it right when he said in a 1998 interview that Roots is a ‘work of the imagination’. This may be the reason it captured the imagination of millions and why genealogical work began a new phase of expansion.
New organisations were founded, such as the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society in May 1977 and the International Society of Sons and Daughters of Slave Ancestry in 1997; there were new jobs for professional genealogists, such as those employed by Native American tribes in disputes with the federal government; a spate of genealogically informed memoirs as part of a broader ethnic revival – Richard Gambino’s Blood of My Blood: The Problem of Italian Americans, for example, and Michael Arlen’s Passage to Ararat. Capitalism turned all this into profit, initially through print publication and the rise of professional genealogy services, and on to the consumer DNA tests and paywalled online databases of today. Genealogy became entertainment: Henry Louis Gates’s Finding Your Roots on PBS, in which the family history of a celebrity is revealed each week, began its ninth season this spring. There are similar programmes on for-profit platforms.
This is a remarkable story and Morgan tells it well. She wants us to read it as ‘a political history’ because ‘genealogy’s seemingly narrow, individualistic concerns’ are in fact ways of ‘inscribing power relations’. Genealogy, she wants to claim, is political history in a formal sense. Its ‘methods and collections’
justified and reinforced African American disenfranchisement; suppressed interracial marriage involving whites; encouraged the practice of eugenics, with the sterilisation of incarcerated populations without their consent; dispossessed indigenous populations; and suppressed immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe, and Asia, on a racially discriminatory basis.
She also wants to claim it as political history in an informal sense. Her stories of increased inclusion entailed exclusion. Genealogy’s expansion in the 19th century ‘unified whites whom ‘varying classes, genders, regions and religions’ would ‘otherwise separate’. Roots ‘signified the persistence of genealogy practices that reinforced social norms pertaining to race, class, religion, gender and documentation’. The Mormons’ open genealogical practices, which Morgan admits pose a ‘challenge [to her] thesis about genealogy’s politics for seeming comparatively democratic and inclusive’, were in fact the opposite: ‘commemorations in Mormon communities reveal a regard for white “firsts” and white fertility … which shared much with … non-Mormon, white supremacist doings.’ ‘Genetic genealogy’ exacerbates the hierarchy between ‘affinities by choice’ and those based on blood, sets ‘the interests of the present-day descendant as consumer above historical knowledge’ and more generally illustrates ‘market capitalism’s grasping, amassing and sequestering tendencies’.
Morgan is right that the genealogical imagination is grounded in far more than the desire of individuals to know their past, though it is grounded there as well. And she is right that it is mobilised for political purposes, even if she might decry the recent turn to DNA – the fetishism of the gene – to make these claims. But she is wrong to view the history of genealogical practices largely as a tool in political struggles. Intersectional oppression and its resistance do not need or use its ‘methods and collections’ in the way she claims in a brief coda to each chapter. The real political struggles are about what counts and does not count as the domain in which genealogical practices take place, about who gets a line in the family tree and why. In short, they are about the way kinship – descent – is imagined in the first place.
In one case she cites Morgan is right about the instrumental political uses of genealogy. The federal government has used genealogy as the basis for limiting membership in, and even for recognising, Native American tribes. Tribes – like the peerage or any ascriptive group – are defined genealogically. Blood is determinative and therefore politically mobilised. It is a two-way street. The third largest Native American nation, the Choctaw, owned slaves before the Civil War and supported the Confederacy. In 1866, the slaves were freed and in 1885 these so-called Choctaw freedmen – ‘black Indians’ – were adopted into the tribe. But almost a century later ‘blood’ made a comeback. In 1983 the tribe added to its constitution the provision that membership depended on direct lineal descent from someone of Choctaw ‘blood’ on a 1906 roll.
But apart from the case of Native Americans, genealogical practices have played little direct role in politics. God might have revealed to Mormon elders in the 19th century that Blacks were descendants of the cursed Canaan or that their pre-existent spirits were less virtuous than white spirits, and then subsequently revealed that he had been misunderstood and that Blacks could enjoy full membership. But this revelation and its later revision didn’t need genealogy to do their work. And, as Morgan says, throughout their history the Mormons collected data ecumenically and made it available to anyone.
The use of forced sterilisation seems to back up her claim that genealogical collections and methods were used to justify state action: ‘Three generations of imbeciles are enough,’ Oliver Wendell Holmes said in the 1927 case of Buck v. Bell, which allowed the state of Virginia to sterilise a poor white girl called Carrie Buck, whose mother was in a mental hospital. The policy was based on the belief that mental illness and various forms of deviancy were inheritable; it doesn’t, of course, follow from this view that forced sterilisation was the appropriate way to deal with them. But very little genealogical research was done in order to establish this principle.
Despite the introduction of Jim Crow laws in the South, there were no uniform criteria for what constituted a ‘negro’, or the more general category, a ‘coloured person’. Before emancipation in the Southern states, ‘negro’ had the fixed meaning ‘enslavable’, as opposed to Native Americans, who, by the mid-1700s, were designated ‘non-enslavable’. Free Blacks were those who were once enslaved. Afterwards, the meaning of these categories varied depending on the purposes of discrimination. In practice, it was perfectly clear. In law, a person of mixed blood could be considered ‘white’ for the purposes of marriage and ‘not white’ for the purposes of segregation in schools or vice versa. There were no criteria for the census-takers who noted race.
Most states muddled their way to definitions for ‘negro’ or ‘coloured’ as Jim Crow laws proliferated: 1/8, 1/16, 1/64; in nine states it was ‘one drop’; in others it was ‘any discernible’ trace, an assessment based largely on appearance. Virginia’s notorious Racial Integrity Act of 1924, for the first time in the US, legally defined ‘white’ with reference to genealogy – a negative one-drop rule – as someone with ‘no trace whatsoever of any blood other than Caucasian’.
But there was a problem. Many of the ‘first families of Virginia’ prided themselves on being descendants of John Rolfe, an early settler at Jamestown, and his wife, the Indian ‘princess’ Pocahontas. The new ‘one-drop rule’ meant that they might find themselves prohibited from marrying a white person – or even classed as ‘coloured’ themselves. After much negotiation and resistance an exception was made. It remained unlawful for ‘any white person in this state to marry any save a white person’, and ‘white’ remained defined as having ‘no trace whatsoever of any blood other than Caucasian’, but ‘persons who have 1/16 or less of the blood of the American Indian and have no other non-Caucasic blood shall be deemed to be white persons’ – the so-called ‘Pocahontas exception’.
There was no operational genealogical logic in determining race for the purposes of discrimination. The Louisiana Supreme Court held in 1910 that someone was not white if they had an ‘appreciable amount’ of ‘negro blood’, and the same year decided, in the context of a 1908 law that made concubinage between whites and ‘negroes’ illegal, that an octoroon (with one Black great-grandparent) was not a ‘negro’ and hence not ‘coloured’.
Tracing ancestry back as far as would be required to enforce a ‘one-drop’ or even a 1/16 criterion was almost impossible without access to digital databases, algorithms for data linkage or DNA analysis. These are ritual pollution taboos translated into arithmetic. Racism did not need genealogy. The marriage of the world heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson – unquestionably Black – to two white women in succession prompted a Georgia congressman in 1912 to argue for a constitutional amendment banning such marriages. There were race riots all over the country when Johnson defeated James J. Jeffries – ‘the great white hope’ – who sought to fight ‘for the sole purpose of proving that a white man is better than a negro’.
The absurdity in practice of the one-drop rules provides the dénouement for the 1951 film adaptation of Show Boat. When the sheriff arrives to arrest Steve Baker (played by Robert Sterling) for being married to Julie LaVerne (played by Ava Gardner), the leading lady in a riverboat revue who we learn has ‘negro blood’, he pricks her finger, sucks her blood and proclaims that he now has ‘negro blood’ too. In Mississippi, where the boat is docked, not only was interracial marriage a crime and, prima facie, void, but advocating for a change in the law was also a crime.
When genealogical practice was mobilised for racist discrimination it gave its proponents little comfort. In 1965, Naomi Mason Drake, head of the Bureau of Vital Statistics in New Orleans, was fired for refusing to issue birth certificates to the children of ‘white’ parents whom she suspected of hiding their Black heritage and for retrospectively changing the racial classification of anyone she suspected of ‘passing’. She would look out for ‘whites’ who had what she took to be Black surnames, do some cursory genealogical research and decide whether they had wrongfully claimed to be ‘white’ on official documents. The subjects of her scrutiny were almost always poor people who lived their lives as white in a rigorously segregated world.
As the lawsuits against her piled up, an investigation found that Drake had held up 4700 birth certificates and 1000 death certificates, and she was eventually fired. It isn’t clear in how many cases her reclassification stood. But in two well-publicised cases near the end of her reign, genealogy as the techne of racial exclusion spectacularly failed her. When challenged in court, Drake could not attach a number to the categories census enumerators used: she admitted that she had no idea how to translate ‘mulatto’; no law said a quadroon was 1/4 black. Terms such as these were based on appearance without any genealogical rule.
In the most famous case in which Drake was involved, genealogy played no part. It began when the future light middleweight champion Ralph Dupas, for professional reasons (interracial athletics were prohibited by a 1956 law), asked New Orleans to issue a birth certificate designating him as ‘white’. By the time of the trial, the State Athletic Commission had declared him to be white; no genealogical investigation was offered or asked for. But he still wanted his birth certificate. The case rested on the question of whether he already had a birth certificate as Ralph Duplessis, born in Plaquemines Parish. After reviewing the evidence of identity and procedural irregularities, the state Supreme Court decided that Dupas was indeed Duplessis and already had a valid birth certificate. But that certificate did not indicate race, even though his parents were known to be Black. He got his ‘white’ classification. Genealogical research had nothing to do with it. Justice Hamiter, in dissent from the legal reasoning of his colleagues, agreed with the trial court that ‘the principle of law with respect to degree of proof required in the present case depends largely on whether [Dupas] has been accepted as a member of the white or Caucasian race during his lifetime … Evidence on this point seems overwhelming.’
Common sense over genealogy; appearance over ancestry and even science. The US Supreme Court took the same line when, in 1923, it unanimously ruled that Bhagat Singh Thind, a high-caste Punjabi, was not a ‘free white person’ under the meaning of the 1906 Naturalisation Act. It was irrelevant that ‘the high-caste Hindu regards the aboriginal Indian Mongoloid in the same manner the American regards the negro,’ as his lawyer told the court or that Indians and Europeans share a common heritage. The court cited the eleventh edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica as its authority for the assertion that Punjabi ‘Aryans’ were not white (because too mixed). The definition of ‘white’ might be debated, but in the ‘common understanding’ – the relevant standard for the Supreme Court – Thind was not ‘white’. So much for science, descent and genealogy.
Genealogy also had little to do with the exclusion on racial grounds from heredity-based organisations such as the Sons of the American Revolution, which Morgan discusses. By 1889, when the Sons of the Revolution was founded, the presence of Blacks in the Revolutionary War was indisputable. The Black – or arguably ‘mulatto’ – Crispus Attucks, killed in the so-called Boston Massacre, was among the first patriots to die in the cause of freedom. When W.E.B. Du Bois applied for membership in 1908, he presented an unimpeachable line of direct descent from a Revolutionary War veteran. His application was rejected because Southern members would not tolerate a Black man among their number. Facts and genealogy be damned. (The Sons of the American Revolution now accept any direct descendant of a patriot of whatever race or creed without requiring that they be ‘legitimate’, so the scions of Blacks born of a slaveholding father and a female slave are eligible.)
But while genealogy as techne had very little to do with political repression or exclusion in the sense that Morgan uses these terms, what mattered was genealogy as culturally – and politically – embedded interpretive history, as a history of what kin counted in filling in the blanks on all those family history forms. What mattered, and matters still, were the foundational interpretative categories seen to connect people within and across generations.
‘Blood’ seems, almost by definition, to be part of a broader understanding of kinship. Yes and no. In England, the very first statute of the realm, the Statute of Merton of 1235, challenged that. The barons who met at Merton Priory in what is now south-west London dealt with the enclosure of common lands, but also decided that children born outside marriage were irremediably ‘natural’ (excluded from culture and history), ‘spurious’ (not of regular origin) and ‘illegitimate’ (outside the law). And so they remained for seven centuries in English and most US state law. Biology was contingently mapped onto genealogy – not genealogy as practised by the protagonists of this book but as a law of filiation that determined not only what records were produced for genealogists but who could be imagined as kin.
As early as the 17th century the children of enslaved women followed the condition of their mother: hypodescent, or partus sequitur ventrem – ‘that which is born follows the womb’. It was an economically self-serving doctrine for slave owners; enslaved women, by definition, could only give birth to slaves. And it was a licence for sexual exploitation. But, critically for the history of kinship, it meant that children born into slavery had no fathers in a legal sense – and were therefore not included either in records of lineage or in imagined genealogies purportedly based on blood. Slaveowners and their sons, overseers – anyone with the power to coerce women – could and did beget children without a legal record of parentage, prima facie denying any claim of descent and except in rare cases maintaining no connection with their offspring. Interracial sex was an open secret, hidden in plain sight and only in rare cases acknowledged; biology be damned.
The same elision of fatherhood was of course true of slave fathers – who, since they couldn’t be married, couldn’t in law be fathers either. The emotional history of these two cases is radically different: white men denied kinship to children born to slaves, while slave fathers both before and, with more freedom, after emancipation tried as best they could to maintain or recover bonds with their children.
The advent of descendant politics in the US, most prominently the claim by African Americans for a place in the national genealogical imaginary, is in a sense a struggle to reverse the cultural elision that existed in the long shadow of the Statute of Merton. The case of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings is exemplary but not singular. DNA evidence – blood – played a central role (an instance of the political instrumentality of genealogical methods) but it followed on a claim about the foundational principles that determined which kin count.
Jefferson was taunted by his political enemies as early as 1802 with having a slave concubine by whom he fathered children. The story knocked around for almost two centuries and was consistently denied by Jefferson’s recognised ‘white’ descendants. In 1997, Annette Gordon-Reed’s Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy settled the matter. The Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which owns Monticello, has made the once controversial genealogy a cornerstone of its programme. Visitors today hear as much about slavery as about the architectural virtues of the house and the brilliance of its former owner. The walls of the building where Sally Hemings is said to have lived tell the story of an enslaved woman who is not an abstraction but a full human being who made decisions about her life within clear constraints. It was recounted by one of her sons, Madison, to an Ohio newspaper in 1873. Hemings was the child of Jefferson’s father-in-law, John Wales, by a slave; he inherited her through his wife, Martha, who was her half-sister. Sally accompanied Maria, one of Jefferson’s daughters, to Paris. When Jefferson’s term as minister to France was over ‘she refused to return with him. To induce her to do so [there was no slavery in France] he promised her extraordinary privileges, and made a solemn pledge that her children should be freed at the age of 21 years.’ And they were. Sally herself was never formally manumitted but in an 1833 special census she is listed as a freed mulatto.
The parallel history of America’s national genealogy – of wh0 can be imagined as the nation’s forefathers – is full of strange contingencies and fantasies but has very little to do with actual genealogical practice. Norman Rockwell’s 1959 cover for the Saturday Evening Post, Family Tree, has at the top of the tree an impeccably white baby – not surprising – one far whiter than might be expected from the swarthy and often disreputable ancestry sprouting up from the roots: at the bottom, a pirate is matched with a Spanish lady and a central-casting floozy is matched with a Mexican-looking cowboy. More to the point, somewhere in the middle of the tree is a bearded mountain man and a Native American woman. This ought to be surprising. Ten states at some point banned marriage between Native Americans and whites; in some states it was still banned when the picture was painted. Native Americans were subject to rampant racism. Why was it that white Americans could imagine them in their family tree but not African Americans?
Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that Black Americans existed in the present of the cultural imaginary of the Post’s readers and thus raised issues of civic inclusion and kinship. Native Americans seemed to belong to the past; they were – and to some extent still are – invisible. The imagined non-existence of Native Americans is also what makes possible a populist version of the Virginia ‘Pocahontas’ story. Many people, especially in the South, lay claim to an ‘Indian grandmother’ – or great-great-grandmother. The number of people claiming to be at least part Native American purportedly grew 1600 per cent between 1960 and 2020. Fake claims based on self-interest are much in the news. Other claims that turn out to be mistaken were made out of compassion: Johnny Cash, a great supporter of Native American causes and a singer of songs – ‘Bitter Tears’ – about their harsh treatment, long held himself out as having Cherokee blood. His daughter Rosanne discovered in 2021 that she had no Native American markers. For some poor white men in the South, the claim is an identification with people, especially the Cherokee, with whom they have little in common except ‘Southern heritage’. They, too, are victims of the federal government, first in the Civil War and then, post-1960s, in attacks on their way of life; they, too, are rebellious. Working-class men I knew in rural Virginia went to pow-wows where they beat drums and enacted ritual kinship with Native Americans. When I was last at the Pulaski County Fair, in 2010, one could buy a ‘rebel native flag’ – the Confederate Battle Flag with an ‘Indian’ head silhouette imposed on it. This is an imagined community (and, of course, cultural appropriation) of the most florid and white supremacist kind.
Although actual genealogical practice in the United States was neither driven by nor mobilised for repression, Morgan is onto something. What accounts for its remarkable expansion over the past two centuries and especially in the last decades? A necessary if not sufficient condition is what seems to be an irreducibly human need to tell stories about origins: of gods, of nations, of families, of ourselves. We can’t bear to come from nothing. We come from the dead, from our dead, in whatever mysterious ways we imagine that bond. Genealogy is a form of communion with those we take to be ancestors.
The intellectual history of the idea of kinship itself might go some way to explaining the rise of popular genealogy in the 19th century. As divinely ordained order was displaced as an explanation for the organisation of the world, the study of kinship became a central project for the founders of a new discipline: anthropology. Johann Jakob Bachofen’s enormously influential 1861 book, Mutterecht (Mother Right), which argued that early human societies were matriarchal, found echoes in Engels and Lewis Henry Morgan, and in the 20th century in Freud and Lévi-Strauss. Kinship became a model for society.
The 19th-century cultural history of the dead might also figure in any explanation. The monumental Mormon enterprise began in 1840 in Nauvoo, the town in Illinois in which the early Mormons had taken refuge. Their founder, Joseph Smith, was preaching a funeral homily based on Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians about redemption and resurrection and the conquest of death through Christ. In the middle of his sermon, he noticed a widow in the audience whose son had died unbaptised and therefore was presumably unredeemed. Smith veered from his text, spoke about the boy, and began to expound on an obscure and much debated text: 1 Corinthians 15:29. ‘Else what shall they do which are baptised for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? Why are they then baptised for the dead?’ Smith’s revelation is historically rooted. It came at a time when the spirits of the dead began speaking in the ‘burned-over district’ of New York State where the Mormons had their origin (‘burned-over’ because of the fervour of the religious revival); at a time when the names of the dead began to fill the cemeteries that came to replace churchyards, in which only a very small proportion of the dead had been identified; at a time when relics of the dead – rings, hair, photographs – became ever more precious.
Pride in heritage – in owning a past and claiming the dead as our own – has driven genealogical research and publication since its earliest days. The frontispiece of the 1829 Genealogical Register of the First Settlers of New England quotes an epithet from Jonathan Mayhew, an 18th-century Congregational clergyman: ‘Our ancestors, though not perfect and infallible in all respects, were a religious, brave and virtuous set of men, whose love of liberty, civil and religious, brought them from their native land into the American desert.’ Mayhew speaks in the spirit that Alex Haley would adopt in Roots two centuries later, and in the spirit of the efforts made by every ethnic group in America and by individual families to stake a claim to a history.
At a more general level, genealogical practices have developed alongside literature’s growing investment in lineage. The 19th-century novel is both a consequence of the impulses that caused the expansion of genealogy and a spur to the genealogical imagination itself. The same is true of the increase in autobiography. People of humble birth in novels and autobiographies have the right to a life story grounded in a past. They come from somewhere and, consequently, are someone.
These are often stories of discovery: Harriet in Jane Austen’s Emma begins as ‘the natural daughter of somebody’ (i.e. not in culture) and ends with a father and a husband. Many English working-class autobiographies open with an account of the protagonist’s ancestry. Thomas Cooper, ‘the Leicester chartist’, illegitimate son of a dyer, speaks to the point: ‘I cannot despise the good old-established practice of autobiographers and all other biographers: that of commencing with the venerable theme of ancestry … May not his parentage be named, however humble, if it be honest?’
The absence of genealogy, in the sense of parentage and of family history, becomes a notable fact of erasure. Frederick Douglass begins the narrative of his life by remarking on what he does not have: a birthday. White children know their ages; he has never met a slave who knew his birthday; there is no more record of it than there would be for a horse. He places himself in a lineage: his mother was Harriet Bailey, ‘daughter of Isaac and Betsey Bailey, both coloured, and quite dark’. But that is as far back as he can go. He knows that his father was a white man: ‘He was admitted being such by all I ever heard speak of my parentage.’ He is outside genealogy. Harriet Tubman could trace her ancestry back only to her maternal grandmother, Modesty, who came on a slave ship from Africa.
Genealogy has long been relevant in testamentary cases – who counts as an heir – but in this century it has become central to the question of reparations, payments by the living to repair wrongs done by their dead. In 1838 the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus, which founded Georgetown University, sold 272 slaves to two Louisiana planters to pay its debts. The sale was something of scandal at the time and became so again in 2015 when a building named after one of the Jesuits responsible for the sale came to be renovated. It was renamed, and the university agreed to pay reparations in various forms to the descendants of its former slaves. It hired teams of genealogists who used both DNA and other sources to identify them. There is now a website called the Georgetown Memory Project, with links to historical and genealogical resources. One of the descendants describes the way that genealogy brings the long dead into the present: ‘Now they are … more real every day.’ Genealogy may well offer an answer that takes the form ‘now I know who I am’ – a common response to ‘the reveal’ on TV ancestry shows. The dead cast their shadows forwards.
The boom in genealogical praxis in the last twenty years owes a great deal to the relative ease and lack of expense involved in conducting research and finding not only the dead of the past but the absent and lost living to whom one is bound by ancient – and contemporary – bonds of kinship. Staggering quantities of genealogical information are available for free, still more behind paywalls. Whether or not direct-to-the-consumer DNA analysis represents ‘capitalism’s grasping, amassing and sequestering tendencies’, restricting the way kinship can be imagined, as Morgan claims, is a harder question to answer. It seems to me that the logarithmic expansion in commercial DNA services is driven more by a broad secular interest in knowing where one comes from rather than the other way around.
Whatever the causal vector, ‘genetic genealogy’ via DNA and expanding databases does the opposite of sequestering knowledge. Genetic testing for genealogical purposes is cheap enough that few are excluded: £79 gets you the basics from 23andMe, for example; the full suite – thirty billion records and links to all digitalised newspapers – on ancestry.com costs £200 a year, not nothing, but not prohibitive either. The expansion of DNA testing and ever more sophisticated data linkage to a large variety of sources have, I think, expanded rather than contracted the range of connections that can be made visible between past and present.
DNA exposes kin outside traditional marriage, kin across chasms of time who are otherwise lost: the lesbian mother, herself adopted, who discovers, through her children’s connections via DNA tests with cousins of their generation, the circumstances of her own birth and the existence of brothers and sisters. The white descendant of West Indian slave owners on one continent discovers the Black descendant of the same father on another. And then, quite apart from the new genomic technologies and an expanded ecology of knowledge, there are the old-fashioned discoveries of a ‘real’ (i.e. biological) father or an occasional ‘real’ (i.e. biological) mother. Whole imaginative realms open from genetic fetishism.
Morgan’s claim that the ‘seemingly narrow, individualistic concerns’ of genealogy are really ‘ways of inscribing power relations’, as if an invisible hand guides the millions to want to know where they come from, is a stretch. Genealogy as techne – its ‘methods and collections’ – does not have the political consequences she claims. But genealogy as a spectacularly fertile ground for the human imagination, as an interpretative and creative exercise in connecting the past to the present, is political in the deeper sense. In this, Morgan is pointing us in the right direction.
Let me try to reframe Morgan’s hypothesis. The ‘methods and collections’ of genealogists are political because they have a great deal in common with genealogy as a way of doing history. Except for genealogies that begin with Adam and Eve, they have no fixed starting point. As far back as one can go? As far back as is certain? As far back as is exigent in the moment? Genealogies are also profoundly contingent, though they seem to root the present by some necessary principle in the past: this is the problem with the foundations of intergenerational connections. Genealogy demands the sort of interpretation carried out by historians. It is by nature normative in the decisions that are made about what to include and exclude, what matters and what does not. As Aristotle would have it, that’s politics, and those politics are often not pretty.
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