This is our truth, tell us yours
With thanks to Stavvers, for accidentally inspiring an overdue post.
When I was due to become a father, a long time ago, I explained to the doctors looking after my partner that there were two things they ought to do; HIV tests, and any genetic test possible to identify the risk of my children carrying the same inherited disease that has killed at least one of my family members, and possibly others.
Given my somewhat adventurous sexual history the HIV test was, at the time, inevitable, but I had been regularly tested, so I wasn’t unduly worried about the test results, and, given that conception was almost inevitably the result of unsafe sex, my hitherto untested partner, who knew my history and that I had remained within our rules for our relationship, was quite happy.
The only rider I gave the doctor was that I didn’t need to know anything about the test outcomes, provided there was nothing that would affect our child. It was quite amusing that the doctor did the usual ‘I wouldn’t have thought of the HIV issue if you hadn’t raised it’ when what he meant was ‘You do a good job of passing as straight.’ My issue, with the test outcomes, was that I knew there were aspects of my family history that were complex, and concealed, and I half suspected, in the best traditions of close knit communities with secrets, that there was a degree of unacknowledged consanguinity in the family background.
The test results were negative and my children are as happy and healthy as anyone has the right to be.
Over the years I’ve been tempted to delve into family history, and have resisted. Let it lie was the obvious rule. When all of us were asked if we would contribute to a research programme into the cluster of inherited illnesses that affect our family I agreed, but asked for no information – I provided a DNA sample and went on my way.
There were things in the family history, on both sides, that intrigued me. Both my parents moved away from their families – the gap between my childhood home and where my grandparents were seemed huge to a child, and contact with the extended families was rare. The exception was my maternal grandmother, a funny, clever and very Welsh woman, the bakestone sizzling in the back kitchen as she made Welsh cakes and encouraged me to read my grandfathers books.
My Welsh nana, fluent in Wenglish and chapel correct in her manner, was English. I was told that by my cousin, who was obsessed with family history, not least because, in true family style, she moved away and broke all the links with her family until she had resolved her issues with her parents. One of the paradigms of being Welsh and away from Wales is that it’s easier to love Wales and the Welsh the further away from them you are, and the same seems to apply to our families. That’s not the whole story, of course.
What was it about us, as a family, that meant we moved away as our default response to any issues? And why did my nana become the most Welsh of the women on her street, bringing up her proper Welsh family within easy reach of the miners welfare, the rugby ground and the chapels and churches?
The secret of course lay in the lack of pictures of my grandfather, and a letter my cousin found, from a neighbour of my nana to my aunt, telling her more about the family history. My nana and her husband washed up in Wales during the great migration, when South Wales was a carboniferous Klondyke, dragging in tens of thousands of migrants from Ireland and England to the high wages and high risks of the underground slaughterhouses that were the pits. According to the letter, my grandfather had two brothers who already lived in the area, making a living as hauliers, living in a ‘gypsy encampment’ on the edge of one of the larger towns. The letter went on to explain that my grandad’s brothers did not fit in as well as him, because they were ‘more swarthy’ and did not ‘pass as well in polite company’. Grandad, apparently, was better equipped to fit in and be accepted.
Can you hear the pieces dropping into place dear reader? The DNA tests confirmed that the type of inherited disease my family suffers from is much more prevalent in the Afro-Caribbean community; the family histories eventually gave up the secret of my great great grandfather, who appears in the records, fleetingly, for the first time in the interregnum between Somersett’s case and the abolition of slavery. ” After the Somersett decision thousands of blacks were put on the streets by owners unwilling to pay them wages.” It’s hard to ignore the timing, even after allowing for the absence of evidence.
Here’s the rub, my friends. My ancestry is no use to me. I pass as white as securely as I pass as straight. I grew up in an environment where the Windrush myth prevailed and we all believed that the years before 1957 were BC (before colour). And yet there were my swarthy great uncles and my light skinned grandfather moving from place to place, trying to fit in and prosper in places where race riots were not unknown and lynchings were experienced. My light skinned grandad ended up in a model valleys household; his brothers lived in the gypsy camp where they were accepted.
The bare bones of the genetics, the names on family trees and etched into family bibles are less important than the habits and lessons learned. The same communities that accepted my grandfather were less welcoming of his brothers, and each time I compromise, or defend my reputation through a passive refusal to come out and fight and put my whole history on show, I’m re-enacting the same behaviours that allowed my grandad to pass and prosper. The story of my descent, and my history, lies in the family culture I have inherited as much as in the DNA.