Strangled by Roots

The genealogy craze in America.
  1. New technologies often have unforeseeable consequences. Michael Faraday could not have anticipated the rise of the electric guitar and its effects on our culture, nor did the inventors of the laser realize they had laid the ground for a thriving industry of tattoo removal. And it is safe to say that Watson and Crick could not have foreseen a day when an analysis of Oprah Winfrey's DNA would tell her that she was descended from the Kpelle people of the Liberian rainforest. "I feel empowered by this," she said upon hearing the news, overcoming her disappointment that her ancestors were not Zulu warriors.

    A fascination with ancestry has long been part of the human condition, from the "begat's" of the Bible to the Roots miniseries and the restoration of Ellis Island. But with the advent of the Internet and genomic technology, genealogy has entered a new age. The past year has served up a series of high-profile revelations. The news that Barack Obama's ancestors owned slaves was a bit more surprising than the news that Strom Thurmond's did, but it was more surprising still to be told that among the Thurmond family's slaves were the ancestors of Al Sharpton. And Henry Louis Gates Jr., the host of the fascinating PBS series African American Lives, which explored the family trees of six prominent African Americans, was astounded to learn that half of his own ancestry was European, including Irish kinsmen on his father's side and two Jewish women on his mother's.

    Few of us can expec...