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., 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.

Football News

A few odds and ends that I noticed today and that I wanted to briefly note:

First there is this story; the Iranian football club Sepahan Isfahan has cancelled its match with the Serbian club Partizan Belgrade.  Now there are a lot of good reason that Sepahan Isfahan could have cancelled its match, not the least of which is the violent, racist, and terrifying Serbian ultras, who are arguably the worse in the world.  Partizan’s manager, Avram Grant, has given a different reason though; he said he was told that Iranians cancelled the match because Grant is an Israeli.  At this point, this is just a charge, but I have no doubt it is true.  Hatred of Israel is why Israel plays in UEFA rather than in the AFC.  It’s why Partizan is preparing in Turkey (where the match with Sepahan Isfahan would have taken place) instead of Dubai where Partizan normally prepares during the winter.  It’s why Amr Zaki of Zamalek refused to move to the Premier League.

No doubt, FIFA, driven by its “Say No To Racism” campaign, is gearing up to investigate.  Oh no wait, this is FIFA.  FIFA is like the schoolyard bully; it flexes its muscles against the weak but cowers before the unafraid.  Nations who are either powerless (like tiny Caribbean island) or who have functioning governments (any truly democratic nation in FIFA)  are wary of FIFA sanctions.  Dictatorial regimes like those in North Korea or Iran don’t care one bit, and therefore get free rein.  Sepp Blatter needs them more than they need Sepp.


In other news, spare a thought for the eloquent, elegant midfielder Yael Averbuch (formerly of WPS champion Western New York Flash) who is going to Rossiyanka Russia to ply her trade.  Averbuch, whom I adore, seems to be eternally on the cusp of playing for the US Women’s National Team, but never quite makes it past the final cut.  I wish her success at Rossiyanka, although I wish more that there were a top-level American league for her to play in.  Perhaps this is what she needs to finally break through and play regularly for the national team.  I hope so.  Good luck, Yael!


The third story is more is far more well-known: the continuing decline of Arsenal who are virtually certain to finish yet another year without a trophy of any kind.  For most clubs, a seven-year absence of silverware is not such a big deal; for a major superclub like Arsenal this is a disaster.  In fact, Arsenal is on the verge of no longer being a superclub and instead just being a large but mediocre club with delusions of grandeur (like Newcastle United).  It was bad enough for the Gunners when Chelsea, who are suffering their own decline, passed them by; now they have to suffer the indignity of being surpassed by bitter North London rivals Tottenham Hotspur.  Jonathan Wilson does a very good job of deconstructing Arsenal’s woes and explaining what is obvious to even Arsenal fans: Arsene Wenger is at the root of the rot and his continued reign will bring only more failure.


Speaking of Tottenham, the British press continues to drum up the candidacy of Harry Redknapp as England manager.  All I can wonder is why?  What has he actually done?  At the top-level he led Portsmouth to the FA Cup and Tottenham to the Champions League once (probably twice after this season ends).  There is no sustained success, no Premier League titles, certainly no Champions League titles.  So as I see it, in nearly three full decades of team management, he’s won exactly one important trophy and had two good seasons at a top club. If you want to be generous, he also won three lower league titles and led Tottenham to second place in the 2009 Carling Cup.

What exactly makes Harry Rednapp special?  He’s English.  It definitely fair to say that he is the best English manager in the country and arguably the world (only Steve McClaren could quibble and his time as national team manager was a disaster).  On the other hand, being the best English manager in the world is akin to being the tallest midget.  He’s also shown incredible disdain for non-Champions League, European competition, although I am not sure if that is a plus or a minus for the press.  It’s not like there are so many English managers at the highest levels and few are being groomed, but it speaks volumes of both the expectations and the delusion of the English press and fans that Harry Redknapp is being continually touted as the perfect choice.  (One could argue he is the only choice.)  Redknapp for England smacks of incredible nativism and blindness to the obvious fact that the Premier League has destroyed the English game at all levels.

Rangers FC, What Is Going On?

Possibly the biggest story out of British football this young year is that Rangers have gone into administration, which sounds to me like bankruptcy, although I know practically nothing about UK.  I’ve been reading British media to try to understand what exactly is going on, but there seems to be a prerequisite level of understanding that I don’t have about the law and about Rangers in general.  So if anyone out there can help, what is going on and are Rangers going to fold?



[Programming note:  Due to the Image Awards, there was no Who Do You Think You Are review this week, which I deeply resent.  It also seems like bad television practice.  The show’s rating are, from what I understand, not as good as in previous seasons and taking any kind of hiatus seems like a bad idea.  Absence makes people forget.  I am beginning to fear this may be the last season of the show.]

Songs To Make You Cry

I recently had the very good fortune to see the Israeli singer Yasmin Levy in concert.  Levy is a singer/songwriter of Ladino songs.  Ladino, for those who don’t know, is the Yiddish of Sephardic Jewry.  Like Yiddish, Ladino is heavily influenced by other languages, including Hebrew and Aramaic.  Yiddish, spoken by the descendants of German-Jewish exiles who settled in Eastern Europe, is a variation of High Middle German heavily influenced by Slavic languages.  Ladino, spoken by the descendants of the Spanish Jews who were expelled in 1492 and who settled to North Africa and the Ottoman Empire, is a variation of Old Spanish heavily influenced by various Mediterranean and Balkan languages.

Like Yiddish, the future of Ladino is precarious; the number of Ladino speakers may not even be 100,000, and they are old.  The loss of Ladino is heartbreaking and tragic.  There is a modern revival of sorts, although nothing on the scale of Yiddish.  I have no definitive insight on to why so few seem to care about the future of Ladino, but I do have some theories.  (1)  The descendants of Ladino-speakers are more likely to live in Israel where the ultimate mother-tongue, Hebrew, has won out over all other Jewish languages.  (2)  In contrast, many Yiddish-speakers went to the United States and their descendants (like me) see Yiddish as the mother-tongue rather than Hebrew.  Because there is not the same stigma associated with non-Hebrew Jewish languages in the United States (and in part because there was at one point such a vibrant Yiddish culture in the United States), younger Jews feel no stigma about studying Yiddish culture.  This is great for Yiddish because most American Jews are of Ashkenazic descent, but not so great for Ladino, as Sephardic Jews in the United States are much fewer in number.  (Sephardic Jews communities may be fewer, but they have also existed in the United States for far longer than Ashkenazic ones.)  (3)  Various ultra-Orthodox groups, both in and out of Israel, will only use Yiddish at home (even if they speak the local language when dealing with the outside world).  This even goes for Hebrew, which they consider too holy for daily use.  Sephardic Jews, even the fanatically religious Sephardim, have no qualms with speaking Hebrew as a daily language.  (4)  Although the Nazis did destroy Sephardic communities in the Balkans and Greece, the Holocaust predominantly affected Ashkenazic Jews and virtually annihilated an entire culture.  For that reason, perhaps there is more of a sense of urgency to protect Yiddish.  (5) The Yiddish world is much smaller than the Ladino world in terms of both physical and cultural distance.  Yiddish speakers from say Hungary and Lithuania could communicate with one another far more easily than Ladino speakers from (for example) Algeria and Turkey.  There is not one Ladino language to save per se but many different dialects that are near unintelligible.

The Ladino music tradition is quite beautiful.  The folk songs are absolutely stunning.  The language itself is also quite melodious, a far cry from the German-drenched guttural tonality of Yiddish (which, don’t get me wrong, I have deep affection for).  Ladino songs are heart-wrenching and full of pathos.  Or, at least they can be.  The songs that Yasmin Levy sings certainly are.

Yasmin Levy is making a name for herself not just by singing Ladino songs, but also for trying to modernize Ladino, mostly by fusing it with Flamenco.  Therefore, despite the sometimes overwhelming sadness of her music, there is also a Flamenco-like energy which also appears in her presentation.  At time she sings like a Flamenco singer and hold herself the way they do.  Nevertheless, that is not always the case.  There are times when she stands so still she seems more like a fadista, as though she were standing on a mountain top singing headlong into the winds of fate.  It’s a tremendous emotional effect.  I speak no Ladino, yet there were times when I felt moved almost to the point of tears.

The closest I came to crying during her concert was when she sang the song “Una Pastora” (A Shepherdess).  Here is a video of her singing the song the way she does on her album Sentir:

The translation to the song’s lyrics (found here on another version of the song) are as follows:

A shepherdess I loved
A beautiful child.
Still so young I adored her,
More than her I loved no other.
One day when we were
Sitting in the garden
I said to her: “For you, my flower
I will die of love”
In her arms she hugged me
Lovingly she kissed me
She answered me sweetly:
“You are too young for love”
I grew up and looked for her
She took another and I lost her
She has forgotten me,
But I shall always love.

Sad, right?  But on this night, the lyrics and the melody were only a part of the sadness, and not the main part.

The male voice you heard in the video is a recording of Levy’s father Yitzhak Levy, a cantor and composer.  Yitzhak Levy was also something of the Alan Lomax of the Ladino world.  He recorded and wrote down as many Ladino folk songs as he could in an attempt to preserve the heritage.  He died when his daughter Yasmin was only a year old, and she has no memory of him.  Yasmin Levy had always wanted to do a duet with her father (a la Natalie Cole and Nat King Cole), and “Una Pastora” is the song she chose.

Although it seems odd to talk about stagecraft in a concert such as this, the way that she staged the song was designed to wring the maximum amount of pathos.  The center of the stage was lit by the spotlight and she stepped back so that the illuminated area was empty.  Alone on stage (her band, which had been with her all night, left), the recording of her father singing began and she remained motionless with her head down.  Whenever she sang, she stepped into the spotlight, and when she finished, she stepped back out until the end when they sang together.  There were tears in my eyes, and the man next broke down and cried.

Yasmin Levy is a true talent.  She reminds me a bit of the late Ofra Haza, although her voice does not have the same timbre.  Just as Ofra Haza brought Yemenite Jewish music into a spotlight that it didn’t have but so richly deserved.  I hope that Yasmin Levy can do the same for Ladino music.  Ladino is so beautiful; it would be devastating for it to just fade away.

More Gays

Matt Bomer, the star of the show White Collar, came out.  Like Zachary Quinto, he lived in a glass closet; Bomer lived life as an openly gay man, had a partner and children, but refused to publicly acknowledge his sexuality.  Until now.  One of the reasons for this refusal is because as he saw it, his show’s existence depended on his remaining closeted.  He was afraid people would no longer watch if they knew the truth.  Also like Quinto, he came in completely unspectacular and not at all dramatic fashion.

Magda Szubanski also came out.  If you are American, you probably know her (if you do at all) as Esme Hoggett the farmer’s wife in Babe (one of my favorite movies) and its sequel.  If you like comedies from other countries, you may have also seen her in Kath & Kim, a very popular sitcom from Australia.  (There was an American remake, but it didn’t find an audience.)  If you a sci-fi fan, she was Furlow on Farscape.  This is big news in Australia, even if it was apparently one of the nation’s worst kept secrets.

I’m not a part of the gay police.  With the exceptions of those who (like politicians and preachers) seek to do the LGBT community harm in public and then hypocritically want to enjoy the community’s hard-won benefits in private, I am not in favor of outing.  That’s why I would never out any celebrity on my blog.  It’s why I never wrote anything about Quinto or Bomer before they came out even though it was pretty widely known.  (I didn’t know about Szubansk; I am not Australian.)

Having said that I am very glad that both Bomer and Szubanski feel comfortable enough to come out.  It’s a sign that being gay is no longer considered a career killer.  And that is a really nice thought.

Team of Destiny

Zambia won the African Cup of Nations.  By all accounts, this is one of the best AfCoN tournaments in recent years in terms of quality, and it had an absolute fairy tale ending–even for cold-hearted cynics like myself.  Zambia’s new golden generation has done what even the previous one (the one tragically killed in the plane crash) did not–win the AfCoN.  It’s a beautiful story, and following on the heels of the heels of Japan’s victory at the Women’s World Cup last year, one can only assume that from now on only teams that have overcome tragedy will win international football tournaments.

Well played to Zambia.  I was rooting for them as was most everyone around the world.  From their very first match against Senegal they proved they were something to behold and they never let up.  Their victory was well-deserved, and they did it with a team that had almost no European-based players.  Hopefully they will be able to maintain this success and get to the next World Cup in Brazil, but AfCoN success is not guarantee of qualification.  Look at Egypt.

From the beginning the pundits were saying this would be a Ghana/Ivory Coast final.  Given the way both teams played throughout the tournament, I suspected at least one would not make it.  Ghana, who played the worse of the two throughout, turned out to be the goat.

Spare a thought for Ivory Coast though.  So much has been expected from this team, and each time they have come up short.  They didn’t lose the match against Zambia, they were edged out in penalty kicks (after squandering a chance to win).  This is the second time that this happened to Ivory Coast (Egypt beat them out in penalty kicks in 2006).  They have one more chance next year in South Africa when AfCoN (mercifully) moves to odd-numbered years, but really this was it.  The Ivorian Golden Generation will probably fade into history trophy-less.  One of the greatest also-rans of African history.

Let me also promote Jonathan Wilson’s coverage of the tournament which has been excellent.