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    artwork of trees and stylized roots

    Yearning for Roots

    We’re born with a hunger for connection with our ancestors – both biological and spiritual.

    By Peter Mommsen

    December 5, 2022
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    In April 1977 the historian Alex Haley arrived in Utah to receive an honorary doctorate in humanities from Brigham Young University. At that moment, Haley’s star was rising, no doubt one reason the university was eager to include him in its commencement exercises. Having coauthored Malcolm X’s autobiography twelve years earlier, now his bestselling book Roots: The Saga of an American Family had just won a special Pulitzer award. A TV miniseries based on the book, which recounts Haley’s family history back through slavery to his African forebear Kunta Kinte, had proved a ratings sensation; 85 percent of US households had tuned in to the finale three months earlier. Haley’s work sparked an upsurge of interest in family history among Americans of all ethnic backgrounds, including African Americans, many of whom had assumed till then that their family lines prior to emancipation were untraceable. After Haley, genealogy was no longer just for blue-bloods and Mayflower descendants. Family history was democratized.

    More lay behind the university’s invitation than Haley’s celebrity, however. Then as now, the school was affiliated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), commonly known as the Mormons, and so had a specifically theological reason for honoring the author. Mormon religion places a high value on knowing the names of one’s ancestors. In the words of its founder, Joseph Smith, “The greatest responsibility in this world that God has laid upon us is to seek after our dead.” Unlike traditionally orthodox Christian churches, Mormons see it as an act of filial duty to identify one’s ancestors so as to vicariously baptize them into the faith; accordingly, the LDS archive maintains the world’s largest genealogical database. These beliefs lay behind the university’s justification for offering the honorary degree:

    We see in what Alex Haley has done a remarkable example of the hearts of the fathers reaching down through generations to the children, and the hearts of the children reaching back to their fathers. And if, as Mr. Haley has suggested, “Grandma, Cousin Georgia, and those other. … ‘up there watchin’,” if, as he says, “it was one of those things that God in his infinite wisdom and in his time and way decided should happen,” we here, of all people, can understand and honor his great work in responding to these impulses.

    Haley’s project may have dovetailed neatly with his hosts’ genealogical beliefs. Awkwardly, though, his African ancestry did not. At the time, LDS doctrine forbade Black Mormons from baptizing their own ancestors, or for that matter from performing any other of the religion’s solemn rites. The reason for this race-based exclusion? Genealogy again, this time in the form of a doctrine of hereditary taint. Mormonism, following earlier speculations by some Christian, Jewish, and Muslim writers, taught that Black Africans had inherited the “curse of Ham” pronounced by the patriarch Noah on his youngest son’s descendants in the Book of Genesis. (By contrast, most biblical scholars believe the passage refers to the ancient Israelites’ enemies, the Canaanites.) It was only in 1978 that Mormon leaders would rescind the ban.

    artwork of trees and stylized roots

    Rebecca Vincent, Hidden Depths, monotype, 2010. All artwork used by permission.

    No doubt to his hosts’ relief, Haley didn’t take public issue with the LDS’s racial theology when he came to Utah, instead praising its advocacy for genealogical research. “Families need to get their history recorded,” he told a reporter for the LDS newspaper Deseret News. “Talk to the oldest members of the family about the most minute details they can recall. Once they are gone, they are irreplaceable.” Family history, he said, could help address “the pervasive rootlessness that afflicts America.”

    Haley’s diagnosis still applies forty-five years later. Even with the easy availability of information online, many are astonishingly ignorant of even their most recent forebears. One 2022 study found that only 47 percent of Americans could name all their grandparents, while only 4 percent could name all their great-grandparents.

    This might seem surprising, since the past two decades have seen a rise in the popularity of new family history services that combine traditional genealogy with DNA testing (sometimes offering genetic health reports as well). Two in ten Americans say they’ve taken a DNA ancestry test, while over a quarter say that a close relative has. It’s a lucrative industry: the pioneering firm 23andMe went public in 2021 with a valuation of $3.5 billion, while the current market leader Ancestry, founded by two Brigham Young graduates, sold in 2020 for $4.7 billion and reports continued growth.

    Yet the success of family history services is less a sign of a robust connection to past generations than of its absence. That’s most obviously the case for adoptees or for children born as a result of gamete donation, who may turn to DNA tests to find out more about their biological ancestry. But for other users too, such services by their nature will be most revealing for those who know the least about their family tree beforehand. If you never did get around to recording the memories of your oldest family members and making their stories your own, at least you can get a report on your mitochondrial haplogroup or a pie chart showing your percentage of Nigerian, Norwegian, or Neanderthal genes. That may be sufficient if all you want is proof that you’re Irish enough to drink on Saint Patrick’s Day. But by itself, genetic data accomplishes little in the way of linking you to the individual human beings who are your forefathers and foremothers.

    The “pervasive rootlessness” that Haley identified afflicts not only America, but also virtually everywhere that modernity has touched. Whatever occasional interest people may take in their family history is too weak to overcome a far stronger current of indifference bordering on hostility toward the past. In the words of the Belgian critic Paul de Man, “Modernity exists in the form of a desire to wipe out whatever came earlier, in the hope of reaching at last a point that could be called a true present, a point of origin that marks a new departure.” If all that matters is the now – what philosophers call presentism – then there seems to be little we can learn from past generations. Instead, the cult of youth wields near-total cultural power.

    One result is that the old are cut off from the young, socially and often physically as well. Traditionally, the role of elders was to pass on inherited wisdom to the next generation. But if the past is judged useless or morally suspect, the elderly can seem to have little to offer their communities. Even China, a country proud of its Confucian tradition of filial piety, felt compelled in 2015 to pass an Elderly Rights Law requiring grown children to visit their aging parents.

    This bitter truth is now coming home to the once-young-but-now-aging radicals of the Age of Aquarius. And the wheel keeps on turning. Since the turn of the millennium, the pace of technological churn has accelerated the expiry date of youth for each generation. The same Millennials who wield the “OK Boomer” meme against sixty-somethings find themselves mocked by Zoomers for their skinny jeans, avocado eating, and cringe emoji use.

    The devaluing of the old was laid bare during the Covid-19 pandemic, with particularly high mortality among those living in nursing homes, who also tend to report higher rates of loneliness and isolation. According to a study published in the Journal of Health Economics, in 2020 residents of US nursing homes were twenty-three times more likely to die of Covid than Americans age sixty-five and older with different living arrangements; in at least five states, one-eighth of nursing home residents at the beginning of that year were dead by its end.

    Traditionally, the role of elders was to pass on inherited wisdom to the next generation. But if the past is judged useless or morally suspect, the elderly can seem to have little to offer their communities.

    The sheer number of deaths is a crass illustration of what Pope Francis calls “throw away culture,” in which the old, rather than passing on their wisdom to the young, are warehoused until they die. In Francis’s words: “The elderly are so often discarded with an attitude of abandonment, which is actually real and hidden euthanasia! It is the result of a throw away culture which is so harmful to our world.” Meanwhile, literal euthanasia, in the form of “medical assistance in dying” (MAiD) now legal in several jurisdictions in North America and Europe, is also becoming increasingly common as a logical extension of the same way of thinking. Most insidiously, elders begin to see themselves this way: with no cultural script of reverence for the wisdom of age and respect for its honor, the aged believe themselves to be above all in the way.

    It’s not only the elderly who are negatively affected when the links between generations break down; the young lose out too. When the hollowing-out of intergenerational connections deprives youth of the sense of belonging to a story beyond themselves, other sources of identity will fill the void. As often as not, that will mean affiliating with an online tribe, which offers a sense of belonging that may range from trivial to noxious. Either way, it’s an unstable and risky way to form one’s identity.

    In the course of writing this, I decided to take Haley’s advice and look up my own family history. I wasn’t interested in paying a tech firm for the privilege of giving it my (and my family’s) DNA information. But thanks to Mormonism’s continuing commitment to genealogy, the LDS archive now makes records available free online as FamilySearch, offering a handy tool so users can quickly assemble their own family trees using its vast database. Within ten minutes of registering on the site, I found the names, marriage details, and birth and death dates of forebears for each of my grandparents reaching back centuries – it turns out I’m a mongrel mix hailing from Surrey, Wales, Zurich, Ulster, and the Baltic.

    Many of the names in the most recent generations were well known from family stories I heard growing up. Certainly my grandparents and great-grandparents are people to whom I feel a genuine connection and sense of duty. These are the people, after all, whose visions, struggles, and sacrifices made my own and my children’s existence possible. What’s more, these ancestors often live on in their descendants, glimpsed in inherited personality traits, quirky interests, or the familiar profile of a face. In their case, the florid wording of Brigham Young University’s commendation of Alex Haley makes a sort of sense when it speaks of the “hearts of the fathers reaching down through generations to the children, and the hearts of the children reaching back to their fathers.”

    But go a few generations farther back on the family tree, and it is populated only by strangers – ancestors who, in all probability, I and my kids share with tens of thousands of others, so that to speak of a family relationship seems meaningless. Modern genetics, in fact, suggests that blood relationships at this distance may rapidly become illegible from one’s DNA. Or to illustrate the point another way: anyone of European descent is statistically guaranteed to be biologically descended from Charlemagne (likely there are parallel figures for other population groups). Was Haley’s quest for identity through researching family history mistaken all along?

    artwork of trees and stylized roots

    Rebecca Vincent, Roots and Shoots, monotype, 2013.

    An answer is suggested by the genealogies in the Bible. As Alastair Roberts writes, one of scripture’s most unmodern aspects is its penchant for long recitals of begats, from Genesis to the New Testament. The genealogies at the beginning of the Gospels of Luke and Matthew, for example, establish Jesus’ identity as the “seed of David,” tracing his descent back through the Judean kings to the patriarchs, Noah, and Adam. By an odd coincidence, Matthew’s version groups the genealogy into sets of fourteen generations – the outer limit, according to today’s geneticists, for tracing a specific trait back to an individual ancestor.

    But of course, this particular genealogy is precisely not a record of the flow of DNA. Genetically speaking the Davidic bloodline stops with “Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ.” As Matthew is about to recount in the following chapter, Joseph is not Jesus’ biological father.

    Over the centuries, interpreters have labored to explain how Jesus is the “seed of David” if the genealogy of his adoptive father is not actually his. (Augustine, for one, argued that Mary as well as Joseph was biologically descended from David, and so Jesus belonged by blood to the royal line after all.) But for Matthew, the question of biological descent seems to be secondary. His purpose in beginning his book with a genealogy is not to track the transmission of genes, but to tell the grand intergenerational story into which Jesus was born: the story of God’s covenant with his people Israel, of sin and exile, and of the promise of redemption.

    Matthew’s genealogy, then, both affirms the significance of family history and powerfully relativizes it. Biological kinship, it turns out, is far less important than the family called into being by God’s promises. In this sense, Matthew’s table of begats is of a piece with an anecdote he reports eleven chapters farther along. “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Jesus asks a crowd of listeners, then answers: “Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother, and sister, and mother.”

    In Christian teaching, this redefined family is known by another name: the communio sanctorum, the fellowship of saints. In this great intergenerational family, we are linked by a bond of brotherhood and sisterhood to believers from every era of the human story, past, present, and yet to be born. To be sure, our biological families and inheritances still matter; the New Testament pointedly echoes the Decalogue’s command to honor father and mother. But heredity and blood kinship are no longer the primary source of our identity. In a prophecy that Christian tradition interprets as describing the age to come, the Book of Zechariah promises that the generations will one day be bound together once more:

    Thus saith the Lord of hosts; There shall yet old men and old women dwell in the streets of Jerusalem, and every man with his staff in his hand for very age. And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in the streets thereof.

    If there’s a cure for rootlessness, it is here.

    Contributed By portrait of Peter Mommsen Peter Mommsen

    Peter Mommsen is editor of Plough Quarterly magazine. He lives in upstate New York with his wife, Wilma, and their three children.

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