Blair Underwood, Who Do You Think You Are?

We are all the products of a past in which we played no part.  Because of who our ancestors were and what they did, we exist at this time and this place.  Our physical assets and flaws, our personality quirks, our inborn genetic inheritance–our very existences –are determined by millions of people since time immemorial.  No matter how long our traceable lineage may be–whether it ends with our grandparents or stretches back 100 generations–we will only discover the tiniest fraction of our ancestors.  Yet, despite the fact that we will never know them, they are all a part of us, hidden in our DNA; in both the physical and metaphysical sense, they are the essence of us.  Who do you think you are?  You are the sum of your ancestors.

Is it any wonder that we want to think the very best of the people who made us?  That we can feel so intimately involved with their stories even if a minute before we never knew they existed?  Unlike the relatives we grew up with and whom we learn to see as fully formed human beings with both flaws and virtues, our ancestors are mythic figures.  Unless history tells us unequivocally they were evil (e.g., Josef Stalin), it is very easy to shield ourselves from what reality shows.

Looking for the bright side in the face of stark reality was an unintended theme in tonight’s fascinating episode of Who Do You Think You Are.  I am generally unfamiliar with Blair Underwood’s work, save for his brief appearances on Sex and the City (making this season the third with a Sex and the City connection, although Underwood’s connection is tenuous and Kim Cattrall’s episode was filmed for the British series).  Nevertheless, the episode itself was riveting; the best thus far of the season.

When faced with disturbing evidence of his maternal great-great-great-grandfather Sawney Early (demeaningly labeled a “pestiferous darkey” by one newspaper account), Underwood whitewashed the history.  In the 1900 Census, Early resided in a mental hospital for black patients.  Tracing him back through the 1880 and 1870 Censuses (the loss in a fire of the 1890 Census is the great tragedy of American genealogy), Underwood discovered that Early, once a highly skilled blacksmith became a farm laborer.  Digging further, Underwood uncovered news articles about Early’s quarrels with neighbors over cattle and timber which ended violently; between the two incidents, Early was shot four times (including once in the face).  He survived.

Not that Early was an innocent.  He was belligerent, possibly delusional, and prone to violence.  The show’s researcher told Underwood that Early, who was most likely a slave prior to the Civil War, may have been a conjuror, which from the description sounded akin to a shaman or a witch doctor.  Underwood eagerly accepted this explanation and extrapolated that Early (like Underwood) was a performer of sorts; a strong man who thought he could survive anything–and with good reason.

And there is good reason for this interpretation.  The shadow of racism looms large over the story of Sawney Early.  Early, a former slave, depended on the land to survive.  White neighbors moved in next to him and one neighbor’s cattle threatened Early’s crops and by extension Early’s family’s survival.  When he, a black former slave, took action, the law was clearly not on his side (a possible reason Early ended up imprisoned in a mental hospital).  Underwood saw Early’s actions as heroic.

But I also had a different take.  Early’s behavior sounded less like heroism and more like schizophrenia.  Mental illness and mystical, magical, quasi-religious behavior and not mutually exclusive, especially in an era when such illnesses were little understood.  Given that Early ended his days in a mental hospital, schizophrenia or a related mental illness seems an equally plausible option for his behavior–one that (tellingly) neither the show nor Underwood suggested.  Because Underwood so desperately wanted his ancestor to be a hero, the model of the strong black man who Underwood is himself, he failed to explore less heroic explanations.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Underwood’s quest led him to discover another maternal great-great-great-grandfather Delaware Scott.  Unlike Early, Scott appears up in the 1860 Census, indicating that he was free.  Not only was Scott free, it turned out his parents Samuel and Judith Scott were also free.  Judith, the daughter of Amy Humbles, was (like her son) born free in 1792.

That Samuel and Judith Scott were free in the 1790’s was extremely important.  A law passed in Virginia in 1806 allowed for slave owners to free their slaves, but all subsequently freed slaves had to leave the state lest they be sold back into slavery.  Only those free blacks who could prove they were free before the law’s passage were allowed to stay.  The Scotts were able to provide such evidence, and in 1815, Samuel Scott bought a 200-acre property.  By the late 1830’s, he even owned two slaves.

Because the early censuses never named slaves, it is difficult or, in most cases, impossible to know more about their identities.  It’s the impenetrable wall, and given how recent 1860 is, it makes the idea of an ended search all the more frustrating.  The fact that Underwood was able to trace his family as far back to his 5th great-grandmother Amy Humbles is practically a miracle (and I am jealous; the farthest back I can trace any of my lines is to 4th great-grandparents).

The absence of personal information about Samuel Scott’s slaves however did mean an absence of information.  In the 1840 Census, Samuel Scott owned one slave, a man who was over 55-years-old.  The other slave had died either that year or the previous one.  In all likelihood, those slaves were Samuel Scott’s parents whom he brought to live with him rather than work for him.  What initially seemed like a perpetuation of cruelty in fact turned out to be filial piety.  Had Samuel Scott’s parents been freed, they would have had to leave Virginia (as it was after 1806); an elderly couple who had been slaves most, if not all, of their lives would have had no chance of survival.  By keeping them as his nominal slaves, Samuel Scott ensured their security.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Up until now, all of Underwood’s research had been about his mother’s line.  Prior to the show, Underwood’s brother had actually done genealogical research on their father’s side.  Where the show aided Underwood’s paternal search was with his deep ancestry.  Where did Underwood’s family really come from?  More specifically, where in Africa?

Who Do You Think You Are has used DNA testing before; Emmitt Smith also went to Africa on his search.  Ancestry.com, the show’s sponsor, has been trying to gain a foothold in the genetic genealogy business, but has thus far lacked the name and the impact of genetic genealogy-specific companies such as Family Tree DNA and 23andMe.  Ancestry is trying to rectify that, and the final segment of tonight’s episode was a far more effective product placement than the blatant Ancestry plug that came halfway through the episode.

Underwood discovered that he is 26% Caucasian (mainly French, Swiss, and German) and 74% African (primarily from the Bamoun, Brong, Yoruba, and Igbo tribes).  Apparently that is a pretty standard ratio for African-Americans.  I admit those pie charts always make me a little bit skeptical; it’s just too neat.  Underwood discovered a genetic match with a man named Eric Sonjowoh who lives in Cameroon and is apparently a 10th cousin.  The “or so” that should have been attached to that relationship prediction, was not shown.

Thus Blair Underwood and his father went to Cameroon.  The show made a big deal about “going home” yet it is unclear to me that this was home.  Yes, 27% of his DNA matched the Bamoun people of Cameroon, but 47% matched people who are from tribes found primarily in Nigeria and Ghana.  There are likely thousands of genetic matches for Blair Underwood all over Western Africa (and also probably in Cape Verde, Brazil, the West Indies, and other places where the slave trade was rampant), what made Cameroon “home” was that a distantly-related Cameroonian kindly donated his DNA to Ancestry’s registry.

I got that sense that Eric Sonjowoh was a little uncomfortable by the whole experience.  Perhaps it was the cameras.  I can’t related what was in his head, but his body language suggested unease at meeting his new “family” who, for their part, treated him like a long-lost cousin.  There was a celebration with unexplained rituals, and then Underwood father and son went home.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

I am no expert at genetic genealogy.  If you are interested, I would suggest going to one of the websites of one of the companies I mentioned above or better yet, The Genetic Genealogist.  Having tested my DNA, I have been underwhelmed thus far with the results.  It is expensive and overly technical, especially for the novice.  Moreover, the cheaper tests tell you almost nothing, which means to get any kind of definitive information you have to keep spending.  In fairness though, genetic genealogy is a relatively new frontier bound to be full of fits and starts.  As it gets more popular, as more people get tested, and as more companies get involved, I imagine that there will be more benefit.

I bring this up because the show, despite the massive product placement, was actually very skimpy on the details of the testing.  If you are interested in the specifics of how Underwood was tested, start your search here.  It appears that Underwood used Ancestry’s new autosomal DNA test (autosomes are chromosomes that do not determine gender), which Ancestry has not yet released.  Given that Underwood tested himself rather than his father, it is odd that he used an autosomal test; unlike the Y-Chromosome which is inherited only through the father’s direct male line, autosomal DNA is inherited from both parents.  In other words, how did Ancestry distinguish Underwood’s mother’s DNA from his father’s?  Moreover, I was under the impression that beyond 3rd cousins or so it is very difficult to determine relationships using autosomal DNA testing.  Perhaps Ancestry has perfected its testing above what other companies can do, but I got the sense that much vital information was left out for the sake of a sales pitch and a happy ending.  Caveat emptor.

I love Who Do You Think You Are, and the past two weeks have been really strong episodes.  However, this season, and tonight’s episode in particular, have really underscored the reality that we are actually watching a 45-minute advertisement.  As such, harsh truths are smoothed over.  People are not always good, even if they are our ancestors.  DNA tests alone do not establish that a certain city thousands of miles away is home.  Who Do You Think You Are wildly succeeds as intelligent, feel-good television but as good history it leaves much to be desired.  History is often ambiguous, and I wished Ancestry and NBC trusted the show’s audience enough to let them confront that ambiguity.