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Shalom, Professor Gates

February 09, 2006|Christopher Hitchens | CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS is a columnist for Vanity Fair. His latest book is "Thomas Jefferson: Author of America."

I AM RECONSTRUCTING this from memory, but in the made-for-TV version of Alex Haley's "Roots," the African American author goes to interview George Lincoln Rockwell, leader of the American Nazi Party, for Playboy. The night before the appointment, he receives a call from Rockwell (played by Marlon Brando), who has a question he forgot to ask: "Mr. Haley, are you a Jew?" Haley answers no, and Rockwell hangs up having confirmed the appointment.

The next day, Haley gets out of his cab in front of a swastika-draped house ("Boy, are you sure this is the place you want?" asks the driver) and is confronted by the bulbous brownshirt. "Mr. Haley," this figure complains after taking a close look at his visitor, "you lied to me." For all Haley's honesty in the matter, one sees how Rockwell might have felt slightly cheated.

Now we hear from Henry Louis ("Skip") Gates, who is probably our country's most esteemed black scholar. Writing recently in the Wall Street Journal, professor Gates recalls how in 1977 he sat enthralled watching "Roots," wishing that he too could investigate his ancestry and his ethnic provenance. He knew that he could trace his slave roots back to 1819, and he must have had a shrewd idea that he had a reverse Plessy vs. Ferguson drop or two of white blood.

But he didn't take action until this year, when he had his genome "done" and found to his great surprise that on his matrilineal side, he was descended from a female Ashkenazi Jew.

Shalom, then, to Skip. I wouldn't exactly say welcome to the club, since most American clubs have gone to inordinate lengths to screen out these Semitic particles of mitochondrial DNA. However, the discovery late in life that one is connected to a diaspora -- or even two diasporas -- is not so rare and will become increasingly common.

It happened to Madeleine Albright, who only learned that three of her four grandparents were Jewish when she was informed of it by a Washington Post reporter. It happened to me, when my grandmother told me as an adult that both she and my mother were Jewish, and it sent me looking for my forebears on the German-Polish border. It happened to Sen. John Kerry in 2003. And it has happened, less happily, to any number of couples who unexpectedly produce a child with the Tay-Sachs blood disorder and only then examine their family histories.

Professor Gates was already in my own family history, since all of us originate in Africa. But it's nice to find that we are related twice over. I knew about the Falasha of Ethiopia, who have kept a version of Judaism alive since before the dawn of recorded history. And since the availability of DNA testing we have also made the amazing discovery that the Lemba people of Namibia -- on the other side of the continent -- have a Jewish background as well.

It can't have been much of a surprise to Skip that there was an Irishman on his father's side (recent research in Kentucky has shown that the same is true of the man I shall always think of as Cassius Clay), but the Jewish and the African combo is more, well, exotic.

Every African American friend I have is signing up for the DNA test as I write (and some African American friends I do not have, such as Brent Staples of the New York Times, who wrote recently of his astonishment at discovering that he was part Asian. The harbor fronts of the Carolina ports can no doubt tell their cosmopolitan tale.).

The new impulse is evidently much the same as the one that drove Haley in the 1970s: to bridge the awful and unforgivable gap known so coldly as "the Middle Passage," and to establish some continuity and connection with the shattered society of western Africa. Even Justice Clarence Thomas, explaining his relative silence in court deliberations, told a class of students that he was brought up to speak Gullah -- the slave patois of the islands off Georgia and the Carolinas -- and thus always felt tongue-tied as a boy.

However, the more of this study that is undertaken, the less Haley's Afrocentric hope will be vindicated. What we will find instead is what Russians find when they look at Pushkin, or what Frenchmen find when they scrutinize Alexandre Dumas: that African ancestry is commingled everywhere. If Pushkin could be a black Russian, everything is possible.

The fantasy of ethnic purity is simply a fantasy, and the fantasy of racial purity is not even a delusion, because we are all of the same race. Ex Africa semper aliquid novi, as the Romans phrased it. There is always something new out of Africa.

The latest tidings tell us in a sense what we already knew, and knew before the DNA string was unraveled and decoded: We are all brothers and sisters under the skin. No, let me amend that cliche: We were all brothers and sisters under the skin long before pigmentation was evolved. The only surprise is that we are still surprised; but then we do still live in the prehistory of our species. When we eventually get over this, one of the toasts will certainly be l'chaim.

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