In another bizarre confluence, I had some strange thoughts on heroic genealogies. It started out innocently enough. I was watching a show on the History Channel about US marshals. Much of it was centered on the area where my parents live— Judge Parker, the hanging judge of Ft. Smith Arkansas. With Shirley Abbott’s assertions about the tri-racial character of the South fresh in my mind, I was thinking that even that is an oversimplification when it comes to the Oklahoma territory. There were bits about black marshals, Native American outlaws, and the general lawlessness of the area at the turn of the twentieth century.
It reminded me of a conversation I was having with one of my students about the fate of the Cherokee that managed to escape the trail of tears, whose lineage became melded with white settlers as they resisted forced relocation. There are no pure blood-lines here, as far as I can see. But its a secret of the South, because the appearance of native tribes is not far removed from the settlers who came in.
The program that followed was about the forensic investigation into the lineage of Jesse James. In most countries, I suspect, the point of genealogy is to trace your family tree to some aristocratic beginning, some king or hero, in order to feel validated by tradition. But here in the US, to be descended from an outlaw is an amazing point of pride. It seems so strange how in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence some people cling to the idea that they might be related to a junkie, a murder, and a thief.
I took a shower, and when I got out the first thing I heard was a bit of dialogue regarding the bidding wars over bull semen. When a particular prize bull’s genetic material becomes scarce, the prices escalate. The consequent elaboration of eugenic techniques was captivating. They actually do sonograms to determine the marbling pattern of fat in the flesh to find the choicest bits of beef. The insistence on ancestry as a way of establishing heroic merit seems to me to be not far removed from this— as if people could be engineered to be heroic. As one of the cattle breeders remarked, we do our best to assure our superior protein. There’s something downright sick about the whole enterprise.