I’m Blacker Than I Thought …But I Still Have White Cousins: My Ancestry Story
I always thought my parents were a little too militant. While most kids my age were watching Disney movies and ABC family specials, my parents had us watching “Eyes On The Prize” documentaries and Roots. People could tell from the soul music blaring from our house to the Indiana Black Expo license plates, to the big, black furry dog that scared the neighbors when he got loose, we were the Black and Proud family. No question.
So imagine my surprise when one day, as a middle schooler, I asked my dad if he would be interested in tracing our family history and he said, flat out “No.” I was floored to say the least. Mr. Blackety Black himself didn’t want to know about his own, personal black history? I really couldn’t understand it and I tried prodding my dad for reasons why. But his only response was, “I just don’t want to know.”
Well, I did. And so I continued my search. I say continued because from the time I was able to ask questions and comprehend I was unofficially collecting my family history. I’d spend hours with my grandmother asking about her life. I was the kid who went through family photo albums knowing I didn’t know 75 percent of the people in them. When I’d go over to my grandfather’s house, I’d search through his drawers looking for clues to…something. I found a marble once. My search even became supernatural at some point. My paternal grandfather died shortly after I was born and I remember always wanting to be able to have known him and I’d stand in the mirror, looking for traces of his face in mine or hoping that he’d send some type of message. I was thirsty for answers.
By the time I got to college, everyone kept telling me that I needed to be sure to study abroad before I left. Like most college students, I didn’t have a lot of disposable income. Honestly, it was a struggle to just figure out my tuition let alone a trip across seas. But I decided to make it happen some way or another. And there was no doubt in my mind that if I were going to go anywhere, it would have to be some place, some country in Africa. During my junior year I learned of an opportunity to spend two weeks in Ghana. The two week time span was a bit more budget friendly and I literally jumped at the opportunity. The time I spent there, at the end of 2008, beginning of 2009, was marvelous to say the least, but we’ll get to that later. When we left the country, my professor, who went with us, told us that the lessons we’d learned there would reveal themselves in time. I couldn’t have known how right he was.
So flash forward to this year, a few months ago, when Ancestry.com approached the MN editorial team about participating in their DNA project that would be able to tell us which regions our families had come from. As you might guess I was ecstatic. I was so geeked to send in my saliva sample and I wanted to make sure that everything was perfect. A half an hour before I provided my sample, I brushed my teeth so my spit could be fresh. Mistake. Weeks, later after all of my coworkers had received their results, I checked Ancestry.com to find that my results came back inconclusive.
I had to resubmit.
This time I didn’t get cute. And in less than the six weeks they predicted, my results were here. Before I saw the list of the countries, I saw a list of my cousins…the first one a white man from Massachusetts with a young girl, presumably his daughter, sitting in his lap. Ancestry told me that this man was my 3rd or 4th cousin with, get this, 98 percent accuracy. Oh lawd.
Suddenly, it clicked. This is why my dad didn’t want to dig into his ancestry. He didn’t want to be outright confronted with the lighter, more European side of our family, you know, the ones who had more likely than not, forced themselves onto the tree. And my dad knew the white folks were there. There are just too many light complected Black folk in his family to deny it. Personally, I know the deal. I’m not necessarily happy about it, but I’m not surprised either. It sucks that it happened but it is what it is at this point, white blood flows through our veins. Then I clicked to see how much.
I was pleasantly surprised to learn that I was 90 whole percent African! And the first country, with 30 percent was Ghana. I’ve never been so happy to see a map in my life. I saw generations of me on that map and I could not stop smiling as I read the names of counties I knew very little about like Senegal, Nigeria, Cameroon, Benin and Togo. Then the 9 percent European, Great Britain was the highest with 6 percent and the rest Italy/Greece, European Jewish and Ireland all had one percent, all of which, with the exception of Great Britain, were surprises. Italian? Jewish? The Irish I expected…but that’s another long story.
Despite the family lore, I didn’t see not a single drop of Native American, but the same week I got my results, Henry Louis Gates, wrote an exceptionally thorough explanation as to why that might have been the case. In short, my ancestors were just like my father, not wanting to acknowledge the whiteness. Native American made for a better, less oppressive story.
I always thought that when I got my ancestry results, the answers I’d been searching for most of my life would appear. I thought that I would be so overcome with emotion that I would weep. But it didn’t happen…right away. I texted my coworker and friend Victoria Uwumarogie and told her what I’d found. The conversation went like this:
Victoria: “So how do you feel about your results?
Me: It’s cray. I’m kinda overwhelmed. I have so much diggin to do now. But I had a feeling I was Ghanaian…A lot of Jamaicans come from there (my maternal side is all Jamaican) and it was so funny Danielle (our Ghanaian coworker) looked at my grandfather’s picture and was like ‘Your people are from Ghana he looks just like my dad.’
Victoria: And to think you’ve already visited your homeland 🙂
And that’s when it hit me. I reflected back on my trip to Ghana, visiting Elmina slave castle, sobbing with my friend at the door of no return while our fellow [white] travelers looked on sympathetically but not feeling it like we were. This was full circle. I thought about how much I loved the music, the beaches, the fashion, honey. (Some of thee flyest dresses I own, I bought in Ghana.) I distinctly remember being pleasantly surprised to find the smell of khus khus perfume, the same kind my Jamaican grandmother used to wear. I remember the elders who blessed us. And I never could forget the one man whose shop I brought from telling me, after noticing my Jamaica shirt, that there was a connection between us. And now, with my results, I knew his words were true. I felt it and I came back home telling my family, especially my mom, that we were Ghanaian. But DNA makes it, for lack of a better phrase, hella real. Though I know I have so much more to learn about myself, (They don’t know it yet but my parents, will be taking this test.) this information is the first really big, really significant piece of the puzzle I’ve been trying to put together my whole life.