A few weeks ago, in celebration of Black History Month, I completed an ancestry composition report through 23andMe. I found myself interested in their claim of helping clients find where their DNA came from around the world, since DNA can tell where a person’s ancestors lived more than 500 years ago. After completing my home-based saliva collection kit I quickly received my results:
- Sub-Saharan African: 67.2%
- European: 31.5%
- East Asian & Native American: 0.6%
- Unassigned: 0.6%
Of all the emotions which materialized from the results, the two strongest were disorient and shame. I thought the results would simply confirm what I was told by my family; instead they discredited their allegations.
In college, my father told me our family was Native American and Black. While planning my maternal family reunion, I read prior communication which said the same.
Before you laugh out loud at my ignorance, and giggle, “she thought she had Indian in her family”, know this: I wasn’t just told I was Native American and Black by my dad, I was told some of his oldest relatives received reparations from the federal government. And I wasn’t just told I was Native American and Black by my maternal family, I saw documentation citing an ancestor as a member of the Lumbee tribe, present-day descendants of the Saraw Tribe.
When I read the results and found I was as much Native American as I was miscellaneous (or a wide range of the 31 Ancestry Composition populations which couldn’t be assigned), I questioned my father.
I puzzled, “so what happened to all this Native American in our family?”
My intelligent, successful and articulate father simply replied, “I don’t know.”
“So then you have White on your side of the family? Because my percentage seems high for you to not have any.”
Again, the intelligent, successful and articulate man replied, “I don’t think so.”
Which brings me to the rationale behind the second emotion the results unexpectedly surfaced: I found out I was White. Not just 13% White, my husband’s percentage when he too completed the ancestry composition report. Not just 25% White, since the average amount of DNA in an African American’s genome traced back to West Africa is about 75%. I was damn near 1/3 White. That’s significant.
With no help from my father I reached out to my oldest uncle, the first-born child of my maternal grandparents. I knew he’d completed his own ancestry composition report and had also completed genealogy research through another company. My uncle is a concise man of few words, and without a doubt, our conversation on this topic was the longest we’ve had in my 30 years of living. He was glad to have the conversation, revealing his percentage was close to mine as well. In his research he discovered the Lumbee tribe was allegedly a mixture of indentured Whites and freed or escaped slaves (Blacks). They are not recognized by the traditional American Indian tribes, nor by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. He also discovered my grandfather didn’t know his biological father, and though my uncle discovered the man, he had trouble finding information his family. My uncle assumed there are Lumbee ancestors (therefore White ancestors) on both my maternal grandmother and grandfather’s side of the family, but since both grandparents passed a few years ago this theory can’t be confirmed.
Still, before this ancestry composition report, no one in my family told me they questioned if there was even a hint of European ancestry in our blood. My mother never discussed it and only just a few days ago my aunt “guessed” my grandfather could be the origin. I found it irritating all this information surfaced for me three decades after I was born, having assumed for twenty years I was just of a lighter complexion, then assuming I was Native American for the next ten.
Irritation led to feeling disoriented again; perhaps because they haven’t received scientific proof regarding the matter they can’t understand my feeling lost and misguided. It can remain a theory for the rest of my family, but as someone who has become a Black millennial marketing expert… this s*** matters. It’s as if I’ve obscured the one thing which has guided me since I was nine years old… my heritage. Even back then I believed in Black power, creating drawings in art class titled “A Strong Black Nation”, featuring black construction paper hands reaching for the sky. Along with being a millennial and being a woman, being Black enlivens me. I’m personally and professionally compelled to clarify misconceptions and elevate all three of my squads. As inappropriate (but honest) as it sounds, I’d discovered I had the so-called “superior” race running through my veins, and never before had I felt so inferior.
Then, in a startling and unexpected twist, shame surfaced. Did my family not make more of an effort to discover if they were White… due to potential embarrassment? I wondered. Obviously all of my confidence in and support of the Black community came from somewhere… were they ashamed at the thought of admitting they weren’t 100% Black? Why not? I’m asked all the time by Black people if I’m mixed because of my light skin, and it makes me defensive with good reason. After all, skeptics questioned Malcolm X’s commitment to the Black community because his grandfather was White.
Would I love to be 87% Black? Yes! One may say I’m a disciple of the colloquialism “blacker the berry, sweeter the juice”. I envy my best friend Tiara (Tee for short), whose complexion is a beautiful burnt umber, masking all imperfections and accentuating her vivid eyes and wonderful smile. Or my husband James, who too has a rich complexion that I find enthralling and powerful. I love being Black but the truth is over time the world has become a melting pot, and unquestionably, we have prospered because of it. While I’m no Rachel Dolezal, I must accept the fact I do have White ancestors. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, but quite honestly, the road to acceptance will not be an easy one for me to travel.
Perhaps it was serendipitous for me to discover my White heritage during Black History Month, but I don’t believe in coincidences. Perhaps it was God. Perhaps it was my grandparents who empowered me to do so from heaven. Or perhaps… it was my White ancestors.