Back before there was DNA, ancestry.com, or genealogy or libraries sponsored by the Latter Day Saints families often told tales of ancestors that may or may not have been true. Sometimes the stories were so compelling that they were handed down from generation to generation, thus spreading unfounded myths about the folks who were long past. Thus it was with my own relations who had all kinds of theories about who we were and from whence we had come.
One of the more popular ideas was that my maternal grandfather had actually been born in Cleveland, Ohio of Slovakian parentage, and that only my maternal grandmother had been an immigrant from Eastern Europe. With help from a first cousin I have determined that both of my grandparents were born in the Slovakian territory of what was once the Austro-Hungarian Empire. I have seen their names on ship manifests and now have proof that they entered the United States at the port of Galveston, Texas. My grandfather eventually became a naturalized citizen and I have copies of the document detailing when and where that happened as well, Oddly enough there are still relatives who refuse to believe the evidence that my cousin and I have gathered, preferring instead to insist that Grandpa was in fact an American citizen by birth. Some family fables refuse to die.
I recall a time when a Jewish friend of my mom’s declared her certainty that we were the descendants of European Jews. Her only clue to the veracity of that statement lay in our appearance and mannerisms, as though there is some stereotypical methodology for determining such things. Imagine my surprise when a DNA test revealed that I do indeed have a trace of Eastern European Jewishness tracing through my veins. It was a rather exciting discovery and one that my mother and her friends seemed to believe even before I had found the grain of truth.
It’s far easier in today’s world for me to learn that I am not a descendant of Native Americans as my paternal grandmother had always claimed. My high cheekbones are more likely derived from my Slovakian family members than from some Southeastern tribe. Still the stories of our Native American ancestry were part of my Grandma’s repertoire, and I suspect that she truly believed that they were true. The fact is that the bloodlines through her go straight back to Great Britain and then lead to Normandy and Norway. There are no Native Americans anywhere, but I grew up thinking that I must in fact be from one of America’s earliest people simply because my grandmother always told me so.
I bring this up because Senator Elizabeth Warren has been skewered again and again for claiming that she is of Native American descent. If her family is like mine she no doubt heard these things while growing up and had no reason to believe that they were untrue. We listen to our elders and we buy into their tales, never really thinking that they may be telling us falsehoods. I suspect that they actually believe those half truths themselves, leading to even more certainty that their stories are indeed true. It is little wonder that Senator Warren took the word of her relatives and saw herself as a true Native American, especially considering that she haled from Oklahoma where it was far more likely that her ancestors might have intermingled from many different groups.
I had an aunt who often noted that we were a biracial family from some point in history when our ancestors might have been African American. She would gaze into the mirror and see her jet black hair and brown eyes so dark that they almost resembled nuggets of coal. Somehow she decided that her physical attributes were indicative of blackness. She went to her grave feeling certain that she was a mixture of white and black ancestors, and I have to admit that her tales were so exotic that I half believed them even though the skin of family members from that branch is almost colorless save for the splotches of freckles that dot their arms and legs and faces. Eventually my DNA test totally squelched my aunt’s idea, but there was a time when the uncertainty made me wonder.
We all long to know our histories, but in many ways they don’t matter all that much in the grand scheme of things. It is what we are now doing that determines who we really are, not the stories of people that we never met and maybe don’t even know about. The most important thing about each of us is how well we have evolved into kind and just individuals who use our talents to the best of our abilities. It is in the attitudes and ethical values that we learned from our parents and pass down to our children that we find the essence of who we are. In fact I often think of how my mother always felt that knowing one’s genealogy was of far less importance than gazing into the future. She had little or no desire to look back or to define herself by ethnicity or race. She truly believed that we are all essentially the same with only minor variations over which we have little control. It was the human mind that fascinated her and the potential that we all possess to use our intellect well.
Each of us is the sum of our genetics and our environment. How we approach the world is determined in a large part by our most immediate interactions. Unfortunately we have a nasty habit of dividing ourselves into groups and even attempting to rank them as though there are actually superiors and inferiors. Such stereotyping can lead to the ugliness of racism unless we avoid its pitfalls. While there is nothing wrong with taking pride in our family heritage, it is a slippery slope to believe that our family trees somehow define us as being either better or worse than our peers. We simply are who we are at birth and then it becomes up to each of us to take our mix of DNA, history, family life, and education and forge our own individual destinies.
It really is time that we be more intent on living together with open hearts and minds rather than playing classification games. Much of the trouble that the world is experiencing is derived from an illogical hatred of differences, whether they be religious or ethnic or racial. So much blood has been shed in the name of “isms.” Sometimes we humans devolve into the same kind of thinking that creates wars between rival gangs. It is illogical and even hateful. When it comes from those who are supposed to be our leaders it borders on evil.
The truth is that few of us will ever know our backgrounds for certain, and that is okay. It’s fun to find out a bit of who we are, but more important to move forward and be ourselves. We need not define who we are by the branches of family trees. Instead it is crucial that we all be allowed to develop all of the components of our makeup into the best possible versions of ourselves. At the same time, if we are right thinking, we will embrace the lovely variety of mankind, and rejoice in our differences. When we encourage the many disparate groups to offer their unique ideas and talents to the betterment of us all, the world becomes a safer and more dynamic place. Let’s celebrate our wondrous variety in all that we do.