I’m reading Charles Frazier’s book Thirteen Moons. This has been a very delightful read. Frazier’s writing is every bit the equal of Cold Mountain. The book deals with the forced removal of the Cherokee from their homeland at the hands of the barbarian Andrew Jackson and his ilk. The question of race comes up again and again. In Frazier’s telling some of the Cherokee Nation were adopted whites. Some were Scots and Irish immigrants who became members of the Nation simply because they got better treatment than at the hands of the American government. There were various degrees of racial mixing among the Cherokee and both black and white, but Whites could be prosecuted for marrying either.
I’ll have to do some research on this whole topic, but is seems that the claim of many Americans that they have Cherokee blood may be true, but not easily verifiable by marriage certificates.
Several years ago I saw an interview with Alicia Keys. Key’s mother is white and her father black. When she got old enough to understand what that meant she asked her mother what group she should be. Her mother’s answer was to look at herself, decide which group accepted her and which group she would feel most comfortable with and identify with them.
Our president, Barack Obama, is the son of a black Kenyan father and a white Kansan mother. Obama obviously identified with his black half. I imagine his thought process was somewhat similar to that of Ms. Keys.
In both cases it seems somewhat illogical to call these individuals Black, or African-American (although in Obama’s case this applies more aptly than in most.) One could just as logically call them Euro-Americans.
Genetic research, lately, has called into question the use of any racial groupings.
Oxford geneticist, Bryan Sykes, has written on our genetic ancestry, tantalizing us with fictional tales of “clan mothers” in his book, The Seven Daughters of Eve. Sykes built this story on the fact that the entire mitochondrial DNA in Europe comes from seven women who migrated out of Africa.
The DNA of our cells, and the cells of all animals, contains two forms of DNA. The most familiar is the nuclear DNA, passed along from generation to generation in chromosomes which contain the information that determines things like eye color, skin color and height. It is also this nuclear DNA that determines blood type, whether we have sickle cell trait, G6PD deficiency, web toes and a host of things we are not aware of.
Tracing our heritage by nuclear DNA is impossible in one way because every time a germ cell divides (ova or sperm) the genes get shuffled. One sperm may contain Mom’s blue eyed gene; the next Dad’s brown eyed gene, and every trait gets shuffled. There are some individual genes that tend to be seen restricted to certain groups of people. An example would be the gene for Tay-Sachs disease, a gene not only restricted to Jews, but to Jews with Northern European ancestry.
The other type of DNA comes only from our mothers. Mitochondria are structures in our cell’s cytoplasm that look suspiciously like bacteria. Biologists suppose that in the beginning bacteria were engulfed by one cell animals but not digested. These proto-mitochondria became symbiotic with the single cell animals. The cells produced protection and mobility. The mitochondria contributed a very efficient source of energy, adenosine triphosphate (ATP), and this allowed for the rapid use of sugar for energy.
The genes in the DNA of mitochondria don’t shuffle everything in reproduction so the only change that occurs in the DNA comes through mutation. The active part of the mitochondrial DNA sequence is “highly conserved”. That is because, if there is any change the mitochondria don’t work and the cell dies, or it works very inefficiently and the organism barely survives and is at a competitive disadvantage. Most of the DNA though is inactive. It is in the mutations that occur here, occurring about once per 1000 years, that the story is told.
If you and I have mitochondrial DNA sequences that are two mutations different we know that we had a common ancestor about 2000 years ago.
Since sperm don’t wind up with mitochondria (they travel light) your mitochondrial DNA and mine came from our mothers. The Seven Daughters of Eve are not the only women who got across from the African continent to Europe. They are just the ones who had an unbroken line of daughters until the present day.
When I read the Seven Daughters of Eve I was struck by the fact that one of the women had DNA very different from the other six and a genetic sequence indicating that she came from another area of Africa and came recently in anthropologic terms. What was her story? Instead of migrating with her people was she a slave brought up the coast to become a part of the larger genetic pool?
In Jared Diamond's book, “Guns, Germs and Steel” he cited a similar finding. Most of the mitochondrial DNA in Polynesia came from the same source to the west, but one “Eve” was from the same stock as in Papua – New Guinea. How that woman’s DNA contributed is a mystery because it came from a region well out of the routes of Polynesian sailing and trade.
Now Sykes has written a new book, DNA USA: A Genetic Portrait of America, that explores the great variation in the somatic (nuclear) DNA of Americans, and how the genetic markers have yielded some real surprises. Surprises like European genes being present in the Native American DNA of 10,000 years ago, Mexican Americans in the Southwest with DNA usually seen in those of Jewish descent, and perhaps most disturbing to some, the finding that all of the Southern Whites, in what was admittedly a small sample, carried genes usually seen in African Americans.
Recently, Scott Brown’s reelection campaign for Senator in Massachusetts has made a great deal out of the fact that Elizabeth Warren, his Democratic opponent, claimed Native American ancestry while a student at Harvard. As it turns out Warren is only 1/32 Cherokee. But then so is the chief of the Western Cherokee Nation.
An issue of U.S. News and World Report sometime after the 1990 census revealed, for the first time, an increased number of individuals who checked “other” on race. This has implications for organizations that fight for the rights of racial and ethnic groups. One individual, when asked why she checked “other”, replied, “My mother is from (one of the Scandinavian countries). My father is black and Lakota Sioux. You tell me what I am.”
I wonder if Nathan Bedford, Lester Maddux, or George Wallace had “black” genes. It doesn’t matter.
Who we are, it seems, depends on who we think we are, provided that someone else doesn’t think otherwise. Race is an ethnic delineation and not a physical state. We are all a bouillabaisse, a genetic stew.