Perhaps more investigations into personal ancestries will help calm the pathological madness at the root of modern racial obsessions.
On Tuesday’s episode of PBS’ “Finding Your Roots,” host Henry Louis Gates Jr. sprang a shocking surprise on LeVar Burton, who rose to fame as a young actor in the legendary 1977 slavery-themed miniseries “Roots.”
Based on DNA tests and extensive historical research, Burton, who is black, learned that he had a white great-great-grandfather who served in the Confederate Army’s junior reserves.
“Are you kidding me?” Burton said while shaking his head in disbelief.
Burton, meanwhile, received a 1977 Primetime Emmy nomination for his portrayal of Kunta Kinte, a West African teenager kidnapped and transported to North America as a slave in the middle of the 18th century.
The 66-year-old actor appeared on “Finding Your Roots” in large part because he knew so little of his own heritage.
“It was very difficult to get stories of her upbringing,” Burton said of his mother, Erma Gene Ward.
Gates then speculated that perhaps, based on researchers’ findings, Erma had reasons for keeping secrets.
To build drama as he unveiled details of Burton’s ancestry, Gates and the show’s researchers presented relevant materials on different pages of a binder. They placed the binder in front of Burton. When ready to reveal something significant, Gates asked Burton to turn a page.
Burton’s paternal grandmother, Mary Sills, filed a Social Security application in 1940. On that application, she identified her date of birth as Sept. 4, 1891, her mother as Mary Jane Lee and her father as Louis Sills.
When first prompted, Burton turned the binder page, saw the Social Security application and read aloud its relevant sections.
“But here’s where things get interesting,” Gates said.
To Burton’s surprise, the host then revealed that DNA tests had ruled out Louis Sills as Mary Sills’ biological father.
Instead, DNA results linked Burton to the descendants of James Henry Dixon, a married white farmer from North Carolina.
“Wow,” a wide-eyed Burton exclaimed after reading the names of his white ancestors from a census page.
Then came the real shocker. Again, Gates asked Burton to turn the page.
Research showed that Dixon was born in North Carolina in 1847, which made him a teenager when the Civil War began in 1861.
Upon turning the binder’s page, Burton discovered his great-great grandfather’s name on a Confederate muster roll from 1864.
“I did not see this coming,” the stunned Burton said.
Gates’ narrative voice-over then interpreted the discovery.
“As a young man, James served to protect slavery,” Gates said. “But as an adult, he fathered a child with an African-American woman who had been born into slavery.”
Burton then spent the next few minutes contemplating the revelation.
“I often wonder about white men of the period and how they justified to themselves their relations with black women, especially those in an unbalanced power dynamic,” Burton said.
“There has to be a powerful disconnect created emotionally and mentally. So it’s possible in my mind that he could have contemplated it and was conflicted, at worst, maybe repentant, at best. And then there’s the possibility that he didn’t think about it at all,” he added.
Then, Burton turned the page one more time to find a picture of Dixon in adulthood.
“Kunta’s got white ancestry! What?!” Burton exclaimed.
The actor wrestled with that revelation’s meaning.
“There’s some conflict roiling inside of me right now,” Burton said.
“But also, oddly enough, I feel — I feel a pathway opening up. I have wanted for a long time, knowing what I know about the history of this nation, I’ve wanted, especially in this current time frame, in this now moment, I believe that as Americans, we need to have this conversation about who we are and how we got here,” he added.
Readers may view the entire episode below. The relevant segment involving Burton begins at the 12-minute mark.
The episode was made for dramatic television, and it certainly appeared to have an impact on Burton.
Two comments, of course, might strike the reader as dubious at best.
First, Gates argued that Dixon “served to protect slavery.”
The Confederacy did indeed exist to protect slavery, but that does not mean that Dixon consciously fought for that institution. In fact, his North Carolina origins make it possible, even probable, that he never owned slaves. He might even have objected to slavery, as some white North Carolinians did.
Second, Burton’s claim that “we need to have this conversation” makes little sense in a race-obsessed society. We have had “this conversation” ad nauseam. And “this conversation” too often leads to self-flagellation and moral preening.
Instead, perhaps we might take a humbler approach.
In time, for instance, Burton might grow curious about Dixon, and this might produce empathy. After all, rank-and-file Confederate soldiers did not start the war, and they did not all fight for slavery.
Likewise, we should remember that Mary Sills — Dixon’s daughter — almost certainly never knew her father. Nor did she likely know the circumstances surrounding her mother’s pregnancy — something we cannot know either.
Burton was perfectly right when he noted the “unbalanced power dynamic” between Sills’ white father and her black mother. That dynamic — and the secrecy it occasioned — left thousands of mixed-race offspring with no knowledge of their ancestry.
All of this should remind us that historical complexities abound, even in brutal racial hierarchies.
As a historian, it pains me to acknowledge that for everything we know about the past, nearly all of our history remains unrecoverable.
Hence the need for humility.
Burton’s case alone, however, obliterates that simplistic framework. His direct ancestor fought for the slaveholding Confederacy. Thus, should Burton pay reparations to himself?
A far better approach would be to abandon all tit-for-tat historical recriminations rooted in meaningless physical characteristics and group identities.
Celebrate everyone’s individual value. And treat them as Christ would have treated them.
If we want to leave the past where it belongs, then no other approach will do.
This article appeared originally on The Western Journal.
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