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Racial Unrest Today Has Roots in Our Intertwined Genealogical Ties to Slavery

05/20/2015 10:24 am ET | Updated May 20, 2016
Win McNamee via Getty Images

When President Barack Obama commented on the unrest in Baltimore, he called it a "slow-rolling crisis." Despite the hours of media attention on Baltimore, Ferguson, New York and other places as fast-paced "breaking news," these incidents are rooted in the past. They also reflect a long-running failure to develop a will and vocabulary to discuss questions of race that make Americans feel uncomfortable, defensive and ashamed. Recently we heard quite a bit about Ben Affleck's apology for asking that his slave-owning ancestry be hidden from public view when presented on PBS's "Finding Your Roots," hosted by Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates. Although a comparison between the actor and Baltimore might seem trivial to some, it actually speaks to how and why we need to embrace our intertwined and complex pasts. When we selectively edit our backgrounds and erase a slave-holding ancestor, it is not so much a question of personal discomfort or responsibility, but rather a symptom of a larger inability of Americans of all races to honestly assess our history.

Not all of us are embarrassed by our slave-holding ancestors. Some of us, like me, are actually trying to track them down. For the past several years I have sorted though documents for genealogical clues. For the past two, I have added DNA analysis into the mix as I search for clues about my father's African-American roots in southern cotton fields along with my mother's family origins in the 13 Colonies. In case any of my distant, and still unknown, cousins are reading this, I'm not looking for reparations from you, nor am I hoping to reproach you for our family's past. What I'm seeking is the story of the country that is expressed through our family trees. That story is not always one of success, heroism or altruism, but is the real story of everyday life that gets lost behind the facades of textbooks, triumphant narratives of American progress and tidy, impenetrable racial boxes.

I'm not embarrassed, because none of us can afford to be. African Americans as a group are largely descended from people of European ancestry as well as African. Only a tiny fraction of African Americans have no family roots in slavery. These things go hand in hand, and we must understand that somebody owned the four million slaves who lived in the United States in 1860. They weren't just bound in servitude to nobody. Indeed, it's also necessary to understand that many of those slaves were related by blood to their owners and the white Americans who lived in the communities alongside them. Nobody has suggested that Mr. Affleck's forefather -- like Thomas Jefferson -- produced African American children, but, then again, for more than 150 years the Jefferson family and Jefferson historians largely rejected the existence of our third president's black descendants. I fail to see how this kind of denial made us a better country.

Family histories, like national ones, are filled with facts that might be emotionally vexing for some, but cannot be buried if we strive for accurate and consequential understanding. In researching my own family, I discovered that my African-American grandmother covered up the fact that she had a brother who died in prison while serving a term for armed robbery. She also never mentioned that she had worked as a maid. Clearly, these facts embarrassed her enough to keep them from her own children. When I told my father my discoveries, however, his reaction wasn't shame but, rather, understanding. They put in perspective my grandmother's deep and persistent aspirations to attain middle-class respectability. The irony is that the facts, which exist despite her cover-up, didn't stop her from achieving that dream. However, the price of concealment is to diminish the circumstances she emerged from and the work she must have done to get where she wanted to go. That's a more valuable history than one that speaks of my family as exceptionally moral and financially flush. Told on a national level, it is the kind of history that shows us that we can learn as much, perhaps even more, from our "lows" as our "highs." We don't have to be exceptional to take pride in our past; we just have to be.

The temptation of narrating your genealogy and history is to link yourself to somebody cool and famous, somebody everybody knows and on whom you can stake a big, fat, personal and celebrated claim. Many of us want to be related to Abraham Lincoln or some king or queen. As for me, it turns out, some might say quite fittingly, that -- on my mother's side -- I'm probably a distant cousin of Benedict Arnold. I am also certainly related to Virginia slaveholders of the 19th and 18th centuries. On my father's side, I have yet to be able to claim fame. I can tell you that my father's father came from Georgia, though not from the same place as Ben Affleck's great-great-great grandfather. I doubt that Affleck and I are connected in any way, although family legend tells that one of my great-great grandfathers on the African American side was "some white man" and that a 3rd great grandfather, Henry Young, was both a slave and his owner's son. Nonetheless, as I browse the lists of thousands of blood relatives genetic testing companies provide when you decide to have your DNA sampled, I find myself related to strangers of all races and ethnicities from all over the globe. This is the way of America and, increasingly, the way of the world. We cannot go back and "repair" that past; we must do what is more difficult: accept and embrace it.

Although I probably have no biological ties to Ben Affleck or Henry Louis Gates, Jr., we still share a kinship. We all emerge from a common and complicated history that we should not be shamed out of, either by ourselves or anyone else. Our pasts are littered with all kinds of folks, good and bad. Let's remember that if we go back in our family trees 10 generations, somewhere around 300 years, we will find that we are directly descended from 1,024 grandparents of that generation alone. Hey, they can't all be "winners," but they are family -- and they shaped history --nonetheless. Those who investigate the past and make it available to the current public continue to shape that history. So in that spirit, I say to Cousin Ben: Give a brother a break. It's not the salacious gossip we are seeking, but an understanding of the complicated ways we have been bound together for centuries. When we own and own up to our past, we are more responsible brothers' keepers. We have been, and will continue to be, together in this messy and magnificent thing called "America." If we cannot begin to find a common language to express our connections openly, our crises will continue to roll on slowly and devastate all things in their path.