In the past week there has been an interesting convergence of inquiries into the nature of truth. James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces triggered deep epistemological soul-searching about whether simple lies can constitute “emotional truth.” After a swirl of media confusion, a sound tongue-lashing from Oprah Winfrey seemed to seal up the answer as a resounding Not On My Dime.
At the same time that Frey’s soap opera was playing itself out, researchers in France were searching for any charred relics at the site where Joan of Arc was said to have been burned at the stake. They want to subject any putative remains to DNA testing. Why one would want to do this has become something of an issue in the European media: She didn’t have children, the site of her martyrdom is in dispute, the legitimacy of any so-called relic would be highly contested. But the pursuit of knowledge in so attenuated a context has raised questions about the hunger for certainty in the face of such uncertainty. What are the limits of historical insight? How many graves shall we dig up to settle old scores? What are the possibilities of knowing absolutely?
Here at home, the American press has been busy dissecting Henry Louis Gates’s exploration of his roots and those of a handful of other prominent African-American figures, including comedians Chris Tucker and Whoopi Goldberg, scholar Sarah Lawrence-Lightfoot and, of course, Oprah Winfrey. It is a fascinating series of TV programs, particularly from the perspective of the discipline of history. It reveals the peculiar difficulties of tracking lines of descent through slavery, the sales of human beings that acknowledged no family ties, the absence of last names, the absence of first names in some cases and the necessity of consulting not just census records but also “the master’s” property holdings for listings of possible relatives. The reconstruction of family history is like an archeological dig, part intergenerational storytelling, part study of migratory patterns, part recovery of commercial transactions and part science.
The science du jour is, of course, DNA testing, and Professor Gates could not be more incautious about its salutary promise for African-Americans in search of a sense of self. Here is where the programs run into some rather careless uses of that science. On the one hand, DNA testing can be quite useful in establishing certain kinds of family relation. Gates’s own test results showed that he has an Ashkenazi foremother, and that he has no relation to Samuel Brady, the white patriarch he’d grown up “knowing” as the man who impregnated his great-great-grandmother. His family lore had never hinted at what the Wall Street Journal dubbed his “Yiddishe Mama.” By the same token, nothing had prepared him for Brady’s not being his direct ancestor. Indeed, one of Gates’s cousins remains adamant that the test must be wrong. If the test is right, he insists, there are two truths. One is the story he grew up with, the other is what the DNA says.