After publishing dozens of controversial opinions on these pages I often receive emails from readers asking the same question: “Just who do you think you are, anyway?” It’s rhetorical, of course, but still a fair question. Perhaps I should try to answer.
First, I’m mostly who I’ve chosen to be: a politically conservative Roman Catholic. Those governing forces — philosophy and faith — guide me in most affairs. I’m conservative because I believe the maxim “that government is best which governs least.”
I’m Catholic because I believe the church is what it claims to be. I’ve chosen to be the husband of a remarkable woman, and believe our marriage is a sacred, unbreakable bond. Together we’re the parents of five wonderful children, and choose to believe we’re solely responsible for their health and well-being, along with the formation of their faith, character and education.
Second, who I am was heavily influenced by my upbringing. I’m the youngest of seven children born to a firefighter and freelance writer. My siblings partially raised me, too. From my bothers I learned about hard work, art and history. From my sisters, tenacity, compassion and taste.
Our little three-bedroom, one-bath house in Mobile was always full of people, dogs and cats and was very noisy (especially during Alabama football games). We learned to eat fast and speak loudly. Those years were a harmonious mess. Knowing now how much life costs and how little my parents earned (never more than $30,000 annually), I don’t know how they provided so much for so many.
But I never felt poor; I felt free.
One of my grandfathers painted houses for a living. The other was a truck driver and sometimes sailor whose stories of foreign ports sparked my early interest in adventure and world affairs. I later joined the military and traveled the world, seeing many of the same places.
Third, who I am is partially a result of where my family came from, both historically and genetically. Like most things in the South, our history is long and colorful — literally.
On my mother’s side, my ninth great-grandfather, Peter Knight of London, was an early Jamestown colonist and member of Virginia’s House of Burgesses. My fifth great-grandfather, Thomas Conner, served in the 1st Maryland Regiment during the Revolutionary War.
I named one of my sons after him. In 1777, my sixth great-grandmother, Hannah Hale, was kidnapped when she was 12-years old during a Creek Indian attack on Fort Rogers in Georgia. She was eventually given as a bride to a chief named Far Off Warrior. I descend from their daughter, Jennie Hale, whose brother died on the Trail of Tears.
On my father’s side, my sixth great-grandfather,
Thomas Briaus (later Bryars) left France in 1700 and settled in Virginia. His great-grandson, Lazarus Bryars, left for Baldwin County, Alabama, and was in the area when the Creeks attacked Fort Mims in 1813. In a strange coincidence, Far Off Warrior was killed while attacking the fort.
My family has been in Alabama ever since, and my second great-grandfather, Red Berry Bryars, served in the 15th Alabama Cavalry in the Civil War and in the state’s wartime legislature. I place flowers on his grave whenever I visit our family cemetery in Stockton.
My blood tells the rest of the story. According to a recent genetic test from 23andMe, nearly 99-percent of my DNA is European, mostly British and Irish (72-percent), with smaller amounts of Scandinavian, French, German and Finnish.
The last one-percent is interesting. About .4-percent is Native American. A geneticist said the results were “quite in line” with me having a Native American ancestor who lived between 175-225 years ago. That’s within Far Off Warrior’s lifetime.
About .3-percent of my DNA is West African, which the geneticist said “quite likely” means I have a black ancestor between 200-250 years ago. Given that slaves were stolen primarily from West Africa, and how long my family has been in the South (records show several owned slaves), it’s possible that my ancestor was a slave. This was surprising news, and makes me feel even more a part of our country.
Another .2-percent comes from the subcontinent of India, which could mean my ancestor lived there 300 years ago or more. I have no theory about that, other than it could explain my love of spicy food.
Like most of you, my ancestors — white, black, red and probably brown — helped build this great nation, which is our sacred inheritance. So who do I think I am? I’m like you: an American, and damn proud of it.