Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Michelle Obama's – and most black people's? – white ancestry

"Everybody have their white grandmother!" including the wife of the President of the United States. Well, it's a white male progenitor, in her case. Many of us have always assumed it to be true of black people and white ancestors, grandma or grandpa. There's an apocryphal tale of Kamau Brathwaite stopping the presses at Oxford as they were about to print The Development of Creole Society 1770-1820 because he had found enough evidence of racial intermarriage in church registries to suggest that it had been more extensive than previously thought. So he had rewriting to do, for which the venerable presses at Oxford waited.

If we accept the notion of more pervasive white ancestries than supposed, there are implications as well for all those persons who insist that people who are phenotypically black are the only true blacks in the diaspora. In other words, if your genes haven't cooperated to produce very dark skin, tings tuff wit yu. But I guess it may be a case of, "My white grandmother is okay, for she kept her genes to herself. Too bad about yours!"

There are several academics and an author (Ishmael Reed) offering comments on the matter of Mrs Obama's white ancestry in the New York Times, including one biology prof who reminds us that human beings are far more similar than they are different. According to Mark Shriver, "on the molecular level... 85-95 percent of human genetic variation is shared across all populations." This could suggest that race is only skin deep, but Shriver doesn't rush to say that. I'm not prepared to agree, since I think the history of a people finds its way into their molecular structure, so, in a sense, race may be a people's history. And there's a remark that Prof Shriver makes that is consonant with this notion: "The genome is not singular and different genes have independent evolutionary histories." Now there's an interesting discussion to pursue at another time...

And we now know that humankind began in Africa, with homo sapiens heading out from there, not north, but rather south and then across to India, the Far East and Australia, so that – presumably black skinned – folks were 'down under' before we humans made our way to Europe in a much later migration. In sum, what we really ought to be saying is, "Everybody have their black grandmother!"

Two interesting by-the-way things. As I understand it (always ready to be corrected!) studies of mitochondrial DNA in fossils have established that all human beings link back to a single female placenta, and therefore, progenitor – the original, black Eve! Why the fundamentalists haven't galloped off with this, I can't imagine. (Maybe skin colour getting in the way again?) Also, human beings are more differentiated in Africa than anywhere else on earth because humankind has been on that continent the longest.

Anyway, all of that is a long preamble to my own imagined account of forced racial intermixing, as related in the story of Great-Granny Mac. The whole poem (I've included only a part here) is to be found in The True Blue of Islands, available on amazon. It's a long narrative poem that tells the tale of Madeleine Lazare Mungo, a young girl whose family is broken up and sent to owners on different estates. Missing her sisters and brothers and mother, she's enslaved on the plantation of a black slave owner named Bellmartin. So it's not the traditional white-master-rapes-black-slave story, but it witnesses to the fact that there was coercion of all sorts in slavery times, and so plenty blood mixing. Here then begins the story of Madeleine Lazare Mungo:

Great Granny Mac

Before Bellmartin buy Great Gran
she working in the pikni gang
on a plantation that belong
to Mr Serle, a backra man.

That white man own her family –
mother, two brother, two sister
and she, Madeleine. “He was
a cruel man,” my Great-gran say.

“He love a whip. The cat’ o’nine
was like a flask of wine
to him. He could get drunk
with lashing slaves. When his

“arm hoist is like you see
inebriation rise inside
his veins his muscles brain
his whole entire flesh on fire.

“He lash man, woman, pikni
too. Even his friends advise,
‘Don’t be a fool. You spoiling
your own property! You pay

good money for those blacks!’
He answer: “So – I flog them
as I please.’ One day
sudden the man take in

“with belly workings.
Doctor come but cannot
find no remedy. ‘I’d change
the cook,’ he recommend.

“ ‘Some nigger trying to poison
me? I’ll rid me of the lot
of them.’ Backra break up
our family. Sell us all bout.

“I bawling watch my brothers go
two different ways. I see one bigger sis
leave for Green Island; t’other one
they take to Annotto Bay.

“They haul my mother to the far
north shore. Me, smallest, stay
on a modest estate in town.
Mr. Bellmartin purchase me.

“The day I see him little most
I drop down from the sight. Top hat
and ruffles riding crop barouche –
this man as black as night!

“When he buy me, I was seven
years old. For days I suffer fever
in my head. Don’t rise, don’t eat,
don’t sleep. Make up my mind

“to dead. Then Ma come in
a dream and say, ‘ Best you
let go of us, Madeleine.
Put us away – inside.’

“I do as Ma say. Rise
next day. I still can hear
her whispering
my name, ‘Madeleine’.”

“At Bellmartin’s plantation
I turn cunning. More times
they catching me with book, paper
and pen. I well know if they find me

“with them things is plenty lashes
else is starve they starving me
for days. But chile, my navel string
cut on deceit, dissembly, lies.

“Tricky like Brer Anansi I
maintain ‘I only have such things
because Miss Meggie cannot bear
to play with any foolish

“darky girl.’ The little girl
is black as me but my excuse
don’t fall askew on any ear.
I go on with my tale.

“ “She say that I best learn
to read and write – and cipher too.
I try to learn, sir, though
it’s hard. I always likes to oblige.’

“Dropping a curtsy I open
my big eyes bold make four
with his — and I make sure
I learn to read like a machine.

“Poor Meggie struggling
with words dark like her own
black skin. I eat those words
like they is food.

“Time I become fourteen
I cipher well enough to help
keep books for the estate.
‘This is my smartest nigger.’

“So say Bellmartin, and he rent
me out to some small-holding
folks too poor themselves
to employ help full-time

“to render their accounts.
I never like it from the first.
I know one of them small-hold
man was going grab hold of me

and take his dim-wit purple
pen and write his seed
inside my abdomen...


FSJL said...

South, Pam? The current state of theory is that H. sapiens sapiens went out of Africa east, that is to south Arabia across the Bab el-Mandeb, and east and north from there. This replaces the original hypothesis of sapiens sapiens spread out of Africa via Sinai, following neanderthalis, who certainly appeared to do so.

You might want to take into account the fact that H. erectus and H. neanderthalis both went extinct at roughly the same time, which suggests that sapiens, to put it politely, was outcompeting them at the same time. Since erectus walked offstage in southeast Asia and neanderthalis in southwestern Europe, it looks as if sapiens had certainly spread out in both directions by 30,000 years ago.

There's no reason why a species that operated in small bands should all go in one direction anyway.

What I've read recently suggests that if all humanity outside east Africa were to die out, existing racial diversity would probably be replaced from east Africa in another 30-40 thousand years. Our fundie friends would probably want such research to be banned.

Of course we also have matters like this coming up:

And, to conclude, I really need to buy the book.

clarabella said...

FSJL: I know about homo erectus and homo neanderthalis, and about the theory you describe. My source says "mtDNA analysis now suggests that the exodus my have proceeded via a more southerly route, along the African coastline..." It says that researchers [whom I suspect are Thangaraj et al (2005) and Macaulay et al (2005)] found an isolated group of humans living in Malaysia that appeared to have left Africa 65,000 years ago, perhaps pressured by climatic change, Europe being in the grip of the ice Age. In Europe, sources seem to agree, Neanderthals were replaced by modern humans ONLY 30,000 to 40,000 years ago, whereas southern Australia was inhabited 46,000 years ago and northern Australia and Southeast Asia necessarily (presumably because they'd have had to get there first) even earlier. So that however this group, perhaps of only of a few hundred) got there – maybe via the Red Sea and then down the Indian Coast and through the Andaman Islands to the Malaysian peninsula – it is a migration SOUTH that has human beings in Australia and East Asia well before they got to Europe. See, for example, this report:
You don't expect me to give Bardwell the time of day, do you?

FSJL said...

Pam: Southerly is not the same as south. Had there been a migration south, we'd be talking about Nalo Hopkinson's selkies (or a branch thereof) ending up in Antarctica.

We're actually in agreement here. And reading the same sources. Just disagreeing about the language.

I wouldn't expect you to give Bardwell the time of day. My father used to say "yu put a fool in a mortar an poun' him, him come out same fool."