A few years back I was thinking about a rather unpleasant subject…rape. I was wondering how far back each of us had to go before we discovered that one of our ancestors was born as a result of someone being raped. I figured that it’s not just a possibility, but a certainty that each of us has a rape in our family tree.
It could’ve been from that thundering horde of Cossacks going on a rampaging, pillaging, and raping spree through certain villages in Russia and Eastern Europe 300 or so years ago. It could’ve been from a group of Vikings on one of their raids centuries before that. It could’ve been a drunk on the streets of Dublin a mere hundred years ago, who was forced to “do the right thing” by the girl…which we now know wasn’t the right thing by her at all. Going back even further and spreading out all over the globe, as we look at the “spoils of war” how many women were raped and became pregnant as a result of the “business as usual” of war? And where are the descendants of those children? Surely we all have at least one of those in our family history.
The thing is that for most of us that’s so far back, and so untraceable, that we don’t even think about it. In fact, I’m betting that none of you thought about this until now.
But I thought about it again while listening to a recent NPR piece about the popularity of the new DNA testing kits that promise to tell you “where you’re from”, or at least what your percentages are. After getting their figures back many people start off excitedly on a quest to find out more about the different places they came from.
Many white people, that is.
The story was different for many of the African-Americans interviewed. They saw the upwards of 20% European heritage in their ancestry, and they didn’t go traipsing off to England or Scotland or Spain to find that part of their families. That 20% was a disturbing reminder of what they euphemistically referred to as the “brutality” that African-Americans suffered under slavery.
Let’s face it…the “brutality” they’re talking about is rape. The same rape that’s in everyone’s background.
So then, what makes this ancestral rape different from all other ancestral rapes? What makes the fact that there’s rape in our family history different from the fact that there’s rape in the family history of everyone else in the world around us…white, Asian, Middle Eastern, Native American, indigenous peoples of any continent?
Is it the fact that ours happened relatively recently? No, that can’t be it; after all the Cossacks were definitely ransacking, pillaging, and raping within the past 400 years. And that’s well within the timeframe of the arrival of the first African indentured servants to the British colonies in North America. Even that drunk in Dublin did his horrible deed within the past hundred years. And what about the girl who was raped a mere 30 years ago and put her child up for adoption…a child whose mother and father were both pretty ambiguously white, and therefore whose DNA test wouldn’t necessarily reveal anything about the family of the villain who caused the child to be born in the first place…a child who didn’t know the circumstance leading to their birth?
No, that can’t be it.
I guess that one thing is just the knowing of it. I mean, it’s pretty obvious. Even before the DNA testing, we all knew that we all had some white in us. Otherwise we’d be as black as the darkest Africans. And at some point we figured out that the European ancestry we had in us wasn’t consensual. So it must be the knowing for a fact that it did happen, and by whom. It must be the knowing that it did happen and exactly within what time period and under what cultural circumstances. It must be knowing that it did happen by people who were unambiguously not of our ethnic background.
Yes…it’s the knowing who did it that makes it different. And knowing who did it makes you less likely to want to trace that part of your ancestral heritage. I’m betting that had that adopted 30-year-old known that their mother was Italian and her assailant was German, they likely wouldn’t be excited about claiming their German heritage.
Yet…we’re at an important turning point in American history…one where record numbers of people are partnering, marrying, and having children, across not just ethnic lines (who cares about Polish and Italian anymore), but across racial ones. And with that being done, it can’t be assumed that the all of the 60% European in the DNA of a biracial child comes from “brutality.” Perhaps 10% is, but which 10%? No one knows.
Perhaps that will eventually bring all of us back to the fact we all have a rape in our family tree.
And that it wasn’t necessarily just by “those people” to “my people.”