What's in our blood?

October 26, 2007|By Clarence Page

Lynne Cheney recently sparked a big laugh at a National Press Club luncheon with her remarks about the criticism her husband, Vice President Dick Cheney, has taken from Sen. Barack Obama.

"Now, I have told Barack," she said, "he really does need to keep these disputes in the family."

Rim shot. Laughter. Applause.

Mrs. Cheney was referring to her discovery, while researching her newly released memoir, that the Illinois Democrat is a distant cousin to her Republican husband.

"I just thought it was such an amazing American story," she said, "that one ancestor could be responsible down the family line for lives that have taken such different and varied paths."

And as if that were not enough evidence that this is a small country after all, the Chicago Sun-Times reported in September that Mr. Obama is distantly related to President Bush. Mr. Bush and Mr. Obama are descended from Samuel Hinckley and Sarah Soole of 17th-century Massachusetts. Mr. Cheney and Mr. Obama's ancestors were Mareen and Susannah Duvall, 17th-century immigrants from France.

For all of our talk about blue bloods and family pedigrees, there's hardly anything more American than having a mulligan stew of races and ethnicity in your family tree.

We learned how rich that stew could be earlier this year when the Daily News of New York revealed to the Rev. Al Sharpton that one of his ancestors was a slave owned by relatives of Sen. Strom Thurmond. The South Carolina Republican died in 2003, long before Mr. Sharpton learned of their family connections. If he had known while Mr. Thurmond was still alive, who knows? The New York minister-agitator might have tried to hit Mr. Thurmond up for reparations.

Modern DNA science is adding new dimensions to what we Americans know about ourselves. DNA is providing us with new information about whom and how many people our nation's founding fathers actually fathered, as Thomas Jefferson's offspring have learned.

On the flip side, it also has produced cases such as Wayne Joseph, a Chino, Calif., high school principal of Creole descent who, a few years ago, took an ethnic DNA test out of curiosity about his genetic history. To his surprise, the test found Indo-European, East Asian and Native American DNA, but none from Africa.

Back in the days of segregated Louisiana, his ancestors apparently passed as light-skinned blacks in the Creole community instead of trying to pass as Indian or Asian in the white community. Yet after more than 50 years of life as an African-American, Mr. Joseph said he could not abruptly stop now. His chromosomes might not show African roots, but his identity was produced by the African-American experience.

Culture, which is the values shared by various communities, has a lot more to do with who we are than our skin color does.

The word "multiculturalism" frightens a lot of people. They fear it means a loss of the good things about the culture with which they feel comfortable.

But when I asked Mrs. Cheney, a former head of the National Endowment for the Humanities, she said she was all for "multicultural education" as long it is "balanced and coupled with a very deep and strong education in the history of United States."

I agree. The Founding Fathers were hardly perfect people, but let's give them proper credit. The foundation that they laid for this increasingly diverse country was so imperfect that it allowed slavery, but it also brilliantly included the mechanism for its own improvement. A woman or a black man, for example, could hardly have dreamed of being president in this country's early days. Today they can. In fact, it's looking more possible with each passing day.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is cptime@aol.com.

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