Monday, February 26, 2007

Geneology as Politics

I see a trend coming. Reporters have discovered geneology and, instead of using it to find their own long-lost relatives, they are digging into the lives of the political set.

First there was the vapid story about Mitt Romney's great-grandfather's and great-great-grandfather's polygamous ways. This story was roundly denounced (thank God) by both left and right as a meaningless attempt to smear Romney with the sins of his forefathers.

Now comes the news that Al Sharpton's great-grandfather was owned by Strom Thurmond's great-great-grandfather.

The Rev. Al Sharpton said Sunday it was "shocking" to learn he was descended from a slave owned by relatives of the late Sen. Strom Thurmond — a man he'd met only once in an encounter he called "awkward."

The civil rights leader learned of his connection to Thurmond, once a symbol of segregation, last week through The Daily News, which asked genealogists to trace Sharpton's roots.

"It was probably the most shocking thing in my life," Sharpton said at news conference Sunday, the same day the tabloid revealed the story.

The professional genealogists, who work for, found that Sharpton's great-grandfather, Coleman Sharpton, was a slave owned by Julia Thurmond, whose grandfather was Strom Thurmond's great-great-grandfather. Coleman Sharpton was later freed.

I'm still trying to figure out what any of this information on ancestry is supposed to say about modern day politicians. If one's great-grandfather was a slave, does that give a person greater leverage in debates about civil rights and racism? What if one's great-grandfather had been the owner of slaves? What if that self same great-grandfather inherited the slaves then freed them?

It seems to me this geneology kerfluffle is just a placeholder for bored reporters on the '08 campaign trail. What's next? What can we find in anybody's ancestry if we look long and hard enough? And suppose there are skeleton's in one's great-grandfather's closet, what, precisely, is a person to do about that 150 years later?