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Conservatively liberal, moderately well-educated, and highly opinionated...

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Thursday, November 10, 2005

American Diversity - Legends and Lessons

If ever anyone attained legendary status in their own time, it is Muhammad Ali, and I think it’s a real triumph – and tribute – that yesterday he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

But reading about Ali reminded me of other legends – those that are held closely within our own families. They are passed down through generations and become part of our personal identities.

One of my passions is genealogy, and although I haven’t written about it in this particular blog, I spend enormous time researching and reading about – specifically – mixed ancestry in the United States.

What I have learned through all this research is that although much of what we know about early American history regarding racism and race relations is absolutely true, what our culture has taught about "race" is not. (To be blunt - the concept of "race", in terms of genetics, is bunk.)

Furthermore, every family’s story is different – and they don’t all follow the expected historical script. So – while we're honoring him, here’s some more about Mohammad Ali:

New York Irish embrace Ali as a native son

Learning this about Ali gives the story of his life so much more depth and dimension. Even more, though, it illustrates – at least to me – that Americans are less racially divided than “colorism” would lead us to believe. The definitions of "black" and "white" are there because we continue to allow them.

In writing this article, I found myself wondering why I didn't know that Ali was partially Irish. It isn't as if he hid it.

The Irish ancestry was not, however, news to Ali.

When Ali visited Ireland in 1972, he mentioned his Irish forefather Grady twice to the press, but nobody picked up on it, said O'Brien, the genealogist. A researcher discovered the interview while preparing a documentary for the Irish language TV channel TG4, she said.

I suspect (and I admit I could be off-base here) there are a couple of possible reasons why nobody would have noticed Ali's European ancestry. The simplist explanation is that maybe an Irish great-grandfather didn't fit Ali's Nation of Islam model, at that time, of "black".

Or maybe the problem is one of political correctness - since we've been taught that any "white" ancestry in descendants of former slaves must be the result of rape, and Ali's family didn't fit that widely-held view.

Well, my family doesn't fit that model either. Like Mohammad Ali, I have Irish and African ancestors, and all supporting documentation and research about them indicates that marital love, not racial hate, resulted in their children... and ultimately me.

Things are not always what they seem.