DNA Politics

DATELINE: Not Pocahontas

Pocahontas? Apologies Required?

Nothing can be more dangerous than the latest wave of people and their push to learn about their “roots.”

Roots was a television event in the 1970s that sparked a furor among black American youth who were shocked at the depiction of their past. Many said they had no idea.

Now, we have Sen. Elizabeth Warren, goaded by Trump insults, trying to prove she has Native American blood. It appears, begrudgingly, she may have 1/1000th segment of Indian DNA. That’s about ten generations back—from the 1600s.

She provided no names of these people, no family trees, no paperwork to indicate the actual, physical evidence.

We did our own Ancestry and 23&Me skidoo tests last year, and we discovered that we had 0.02% Native American blood. Who knew? We immediately went to family trees—and started pulling on the genetic strings.

Sure enough, we traced back those with shared DNA whom we did not know, never heard of, and will never meet, to learn that Massasoit was in the mix.

That’s no ordinary run-of-the-mill Indian, but the man for whom Massachusetts is named! How likely is that? We questioned the tree and who falls out when you shake it up. We call this phenomenon “Sitting Bull.”

We also learned we were related to Plymouth/Mayflower names like John Alden and Priscilla Mullens, who were the subjects of a Longfellow poem called “The Courtship of Miles Standish.” Another Pocahontas moment for the family.

We were reminded that movies have been all over the subject of DNA for years. Back in the 1940s, there was a movie called Pinky, about a white girl who learned she was an octoroon. No, that’s not a cookie, but means you had distant black ancestors.

In 1960, Audrey Hepburn appeared in a movie called The Unforgiven, in which she played a girl raised as Audie Murphy’s sister, who was a stolen Indian baby. Her racist family was shocked, but she looked just like the non-Native Americans playing the Indians in the movie.

The Nazis in Germany were big on sniffing out who had Jewish ancestors—and liquidating them. Family trees were the way to root out the condition, as there was no DNA back then.

Mr. Trump should be aware that he could be related to Hitler himself, based on his behavior, and that he may be 1/2000th of a relative to Genghis Khan.

Time for another DNA test.





Roots of an Oscar Best Picture


Roots Revisited

When television produced Roots in the 1970s, the fictionalized sensational story of Alex Haley’s purported slave ancestors, there was controversy and fireworks around the water-cooler. It upset many young black people.

Forty years later comes 12 Years a Slave, which is a fictionalized story of a slave. Just as before, a variety of famous white actors have the chance to play racist Southerners who are at best apathetic and at worst sadistic. Not many people were surprised by the message or upset by the historical situations this time.

The biggest difference is that now, on the big screen, the sex scenes around the plantation can become R rated.

Like Roots, this film is celebrated, but won some big Oscars for actress Lupita Nyong’o and John Ridley as writer as well as Best Motion Picture of the Year. So, this is Roots on steroids.

Chiwetel Ejiofor stars as Solomon Northrup, illegally sent down the river as a slave when he was a free man—and a cultured and literate man far beyond any others of his era. Whether he turns out to be Levar Burton of a new era, only time will tell.

There is nothing modest in this man’s success. He lives like a robber baron—and he plays the fiddle for a living. That surely makes the film identifiable to modern black people as a horror story. In fact, it is far more of an intellectual’s tale of terror when living among the savages.

Along the way he runs into Paul Giamatti, Brad Pitt, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Michael Fassbender. Each has a pivotal cameo role among a huge cast that never allows anyone to make a film-wide impact.