Recently, my son was contacted by a woman through the genetic testing site, 23 and Me. She said that she was a distant relative, sharing a common ancestor four or five generations back. She was especially curious because she is Black and my son is Caucasian. They have had a lively conversation since then trying to figure out who this person was.
When my son told me about this, I was reminded of, Kingsblood Royal, by Sinclair Lewis. In this novel, the protagonist, Neil Kingsblood, had been told by his father that they were descended from royalty. Neil had been researching his family history and had discovered that he was a direct descendant of a Black fur trapper from the 18th century.
Readers of my previous essays may remember in, “Born on the Fourth of July”, I made reference to an ancestor who was a Scottish rebel arrested by the English after the Battle of Culloden and sold in 1747 to a plantation in Maryland as an indentured servant. It may have been during that time of forced servitude that his genes mixed with those of our new found Black relative.
In Kingsblood Royal, Neil Kingsblood was a combat officer seriously wounded fighting the Nazi’s in Europe. Neil was a respected junior executive in the local bank, a church- going Christian and as Caucasian in appearance as one could be with his red hair, fair skin and blue eyes. His wife, Vestal, was active in the community, chairman of a War Bond Drive and an excellent bridge and tennis player at the local country club.
Innocently, Neil shares with some friends his new-found family history. What ensues is unlike anything he would have ever imagined.
For all their status in the community, nothing could withstand the now public horror and scandal that Neil had a Negro ancestor! Ultimately, Neil and his wife were forced to move from their red-lined*, white’s only, cozy neighborhood by a mob of outraged former friends and neighbors.
Today I don’t think that Neil Kingsblood or my family would be driven from our homes because we share genes with a Black person. I also don’t think our new relative will be ostracized by her community for having a White ancestor. Many Black people know that there is a very good chance that somewhere in the past a White person shared by force or other means, his genetic material with a Black woman. However, I might be the object of some people’s anger for expressing outrage at the shooting of an unarmed Black man in the back by a White police officer or the killing of a Black woman during a no-knock warrant intrusion into an innocent woman’s home by the police.
When Kingsblood Royal was first published in 1947, many white critics scoffed at it as “contrived”. Ebony Magazine lauded it as the most important novel of the year.
“The white establishment tended to view the novel as wildly implausible. Black people viewed it as profoundly perceptive.”**
Shortly after the publication of Kingsblood Royal, a group of white supremacists sent a letter to J. Edgar Hoover encouraging the FBI to seize all copies of the book and declare Lewis’s novel an act of sedition. The book was actually banned in several American cities. I have to wonder how a similar, contemporary novel would be treated in various areas of the country and in some media outlets. What might happen to a modern-day Neil Kingsblood should he speak of racial injustice in Kenosha, Wisconsin; Ferguson, Missouri; Louisville, Kentucky; Staten Island, New York; Brunswick, Georgia; and Sanford, Florida as well as many others?
I have always wondered if I might have some Black relatives. Any Caucasian family like mine that has been in America for close to three hundred years is likely to have Native American and/or Black relatives. Someone over those multiple generations either forcefully or willingly crossed over the racial divide. So many more of us are genetically connected to each other than we might ever imagine. My list of genetic relatives on 23 and Me seems to grow monthly as more people do the testing.
Racial purity has never been a good choice for any society. In the last century, we saw how it seemed to initially unite and strengthen Nazi Germany but ultimately lead to its utter destruction. It left on the German people a mark that may never be fully erased. This is true of other nations that have tried to exclude or subjugate all who were different from them. Yet in America, and in many other countries, some people, encouraged by political leaders, keep trying to find ways to focus on how we are different rather than on how we are connected.
Sinclair Lewis was the first American author to win the Nobel prize for literature. In his plain-speak Minnesotan style of prose, he tried to show America itself. I think in, Kingsblood Royal he wanted us to know that in this vast country, we all have some roving chromosomes that long to find their source, that want peace in the family.
* Redlining is a term to describe using predetermined but often unacknowledged, invisible boundaries by government, financial or real estate personnel to limit who may receive certain benefits or be allowed to live in a certain neighborhood or area of a city. It is often used to maintain racial segregation.
** Brent Staples, “Kingsblood Royal’: When the Bard of Main Street Turned the Kingsblood Black” The New York Times, 18 Aug 2002
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