This Awful Election Year Is Revealing the Horrible Politics of AncestryNews at Home
Pearl Duncan is completing a book about DNA and ancestry.
The election has awakened me to history I had put behind me, even though for years, I have researched and written about some of the issues being discussed. The issue of ancestry, specifically, the distortions and toxic diatribes and lies tossed across the airways and splashed in print about President Barack Obama’s ancestry, have existed since before the election began. A few people have insisted that the President is not American because he was born in Hawaii. To many of us the toxic diatribe was not new for we grew up in an environment where others always tried to say who is and who is not an American.
From a racial perspective, people who had recently set foot on American soil said they were more American than other people who are descended from ancestors who have been on American soil for hundreds of years. It was madness. So that’s the background against which I discuss the politics of ancestry.
I did not understand how political ancestry is until I started trying to find a publisher for a book about my family’s African American ancestors. I pulled my manuscript from circulation and worked harder to understand Americans’ distorted and competitive view of ancestry when a major editor wrote to my previous agent, saying, “excellent writing, but why would I publish a book about Ms. Duncan’s ancestry when I haven’t published one about my own.” Until then, I had no idea so many people held a view of competing ancestries. She said my research was groundbreaking. Since then, I have heard from people who say African Americans should not be looking into their ancestry. But not looking means not finding, and not finding means others will continue to try to assume their supremacy about ancestry, about American identity, about whose country this is, and who belongs in this country and who does not.
Now, I must define what I mean by the politics of inheritance. I do not mean inheritance in the traditional sense, as in property – even though that is much in play. I mean inheritance of major traditions such as the inheritance of heritage, of knowledge of ancestry, of folk traditions and myths, of national identity, and of citizen rights.
In my research I discovered that the politics of ancestry verges largely around race. But inheritance I discovered verges largely around gender. On my family’s ancestral tree I found Europeans and British nobles. In their medieval documents they said their property, traditions, and leadership status can only be inherited by “the male heirs of our loins.”
And several centuries later, I am here to let everyone know we will not stand for this nonsense, not in terms of racial supremacy as to whose ancestors contributed to the building of nations, and not in terms of gender inequality as to what was and was not inherited.
Debates about the politics of ancestry and inheritance did not start in this election year, even though it has been taken to new heights with crowds shouting about taking “their” country back. Taking the long view of history, and viewing the emotional views and attitudes that may now be locked in our genes, without us knowing, I take a look at what was encrypted in legal documents, in people’s minds and their DNA centuries ago. What was encrypted was passed down, whether we know it or not. That is why I know so much of what we now hear shouted in crowds is chatter from medieval DNA and medieval documents.
I cite specifically The Code-Noir, or Negroe-Code, an edict written by Louis XIII in 1615, and published and spread by Louis XIV from his royal seat at Versailles in March 1685. This edict was adapted in all the American colonies of all the European powers, the nations that colonized the Americas: French, English, Spanish, Dutch, Danish, Swedes, Portuguese, and the others that commanded slavery and colonization from their European seats. All practiced and enforced The Code-Noir, the black codes. I cite this document although there are other edicts, because it is one that has had the most impact on how race is defined and distorted in western nations, especially in the Americas, where the document was implemented and took root. And take root it did. I know it well because I read it several times as I searched for my ancestors. This is what it said about ancestry and inheritance:
The document called for the banishment of Jews from the colonies. So a call for banishment of groups of people is not new to our election year; it has existed since the Codes. This document called for the exercise of one religion and “forbid the public exercise of any other,” even if it meant baptizing enslaved men, women and children into Christianity.
The medieval Code-Noir made clear who was “incapable . . . of contracting lawful marriage.” And more important, if they were not in the group designated as being capable of marriage, what would happen to their children. The document said, “We declare the children, born of any other pretended marriage, to be bastards.” It said any children born to slaves will not be “enfranchised.” Enslaved ancestors were to be punished severely for doing business or carrying arms.
Finally, though there are 60 articles in the Code-Noir edict, I focus on number 28 in this discussion, especially when I hear crowds shouting about taking back a country that others shared in building. Any debate about who can inherit the products and proceeds of the nation, who is entitled to share equally in the richness and profits of the country, who is counted when the profits of the labors are reaped, draws my attention to Article 28: ”We declare slaves to be incapable of possessing any thing, except the use of their master; and whatever they may acquire, either by their own industry, or the liberality of other.”
But the Code-Noir did not stop there; it denied benefits and profits to all relatives. It said benefits and profits “by any other means, or under what title soever, shall be and accrue to their respective master in full property, in bar of all claim to the same by the children, parents, or relations, of such slaves, or any other persons . . . by inheritance, or succession, or last will and testament.”
This edict is the ultimate definition of unequal benefit from labor, skills and rewards. But the next part of this edict encrypted in our cultural DNA also characterizes some of the shouts we hear about rolling back civil rights, voting rights and human rights laws – and rolling back progress made in the Supreme Court. Article 28 of the edict says, “We declare . . . null and void; all promises, engagements, and obligations, made and entered into by such slaves.” As we listen to current political shouts and bravado, we have to remember what is encrypted in our culture from medieval times.