Wednesday, May 1, 2019

The (Human) Identity Clause...


This was not intended to be my first posting in my blog. In fact, it was most likely to have been the last in a series of postings which were to be a back engineering of my experiences in genealogy as well as genetic testing. At present count, the DTC (direct to consumer) DNA test kit sales have reached north of 20 million. I would venture to say that a vast majority have no idea how to provide context to their results. That's ok, none of us did at the beginning, but the determined will be justly rewarded for their efforts. The tales that I will tell are those born out of that dogged determination to seek the truths of my existence. With 20 million kits currently sold, our stories can become only more refined.

I began my genetic testing journey in 2004 with Family Tree DNA's Y-DNA 12 marker test kit. I was seeking validation of a rumor that was prevalent among the family for centuries: that we were somehow related to the armigerous (entitled to bear a coat of arms) families of England. This was a crown jewel in the ostensible family history as the rumors had reached epic proportions across the nation.  Several treatments had been published in serious academic journals, and therefore had become a part of this family's Anglo-American  identity.

I pause here to reflect on a series of important questions: how does one define identity? Is it cultural, aka "environmental"? Is it biological? Is it inherited? Can it be disqualified in any way? How do we as humans identify? Is it through a series of semiotics that evolve into the visceral as in associations with a favorite athletic team or musician? This is precisely how marketing strategies work, by helping intended audiences create an association with their products through a series of tropes that attract them. Sometimes the obfuscation spills over into ethnic identity. How granular does identity take us? Is it enough to be a fan of opera, or must one have a favorite genre of opera? A favorite composer? A favorite aria? Where does identity cease to exist? Can one be Italian American, or, are they Sicilian-American, Napuletan-American, Roman? Or, are they Palermitani-American? Trapanese-American? The progression is pretty complex, isn't it?

The answer is simple: identity is not linear, it lies on a spectrum. The same applies whether or not we are discussing ethnicity, nationality, parentage, or bubble gum. It makes up the sum total of the individual. In short, it is nature AND it is nurture. The symbiosis should not be ignored, but what happens when a fracture occurs and there is a shock to the system that forces the paradigms to alter? When it becomes unavoidable? Can there ever be false pretenses in identity? Many have argued that there can be as in the case of Rachel Dolezal, who appeared to represent herself as a woman of African American descent. Many claim that she was disingenuous and that she intentionally misrepresented herself. Would it make a difference if it were unintentional? Is a DNA test enough to prove one's cultural and ethnic rights? Can a person not present as a monolithic culture but still claim to be an ethnic part of it?

This has been my actual journey, and has been my personal struggle. I do not have an exact answer to any of these questions, but DNA analysis has helped me to place things into extraordinary context. The results of my years of research have led to spectacular conclusions that have provided enigmatic results. The research has completely destroyed one side of my family, while reconstructing the other half.

In the end, it was my ancestors who were speaking to me in a variety of ways. The stories that need to be told are being told, and all the while, resurrecting a piece of history that had been entirely ignored. This is no small piece of hyperbole, it is a statement of fact. The synergy between DNA testing and traditional paper research is crucial for one cannot exist without the other. DNA testing is the biblical Lazarus which breathes life into the stories contained within our family research, but sometimes it is the hemlock which makes some of those stories die an unceremonious death.

I am eternally grateful to the scientists who have brought us to a pronounced level of knowledge in which to operate, discern, and apply on a wide level. Invaluable are the tireless resources of FTDNA, Ancestry/DNA, 23andMe, and Gedmatch. In the future I will cite the individuals whom I have worked and learned with, because their skills require a separate entry.

As I progress through my journey with you, I hope that I am able to convey to you the irrepressible array of emotions that has propelled me into this position. For the many who ask, "what difference does genealogy make?" I can only respond by saying that our chain of existence is dependent solely upon the direct previous ancestor (and those who supported their existence), if one disappears, then we disappear. They want us to learn about them, history demands that we do....

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