Freshman year of college I attended my first African American literature class and fell in love. I became fascinated, obsessed even, with African American studies and wanted to take as many courses as my schedule would allow. The more I learned about my people, the more I felt like I knew myself.
I grew out my natural hair. I schooled family and friends on our culture and history, and my mother jokingly called me Sister Souljah. I got my first and only tattoo — the continent of Africa in the center of my back. But the more people saw my tattoo, the more I got the question: “Are you actually from Africa?” And the longer my 3C curls grew, the more people wanted to know what I was mixed with.
I had my defensive responses down pat:
“We’re all from Africa, that’s why it’s called the motherland.”
“I’m mixed with Black and more Black.”
However, a part of me longed to know more about my roots. I wanted to be able to confidently say I’m mixed with Ghanian and Italian in the same way my non-Black classmates could so easily share their familial origins.
This desire never truly faded within me, so this year I asked for a DNA kit for my birthday. My family didn’t initially understand why I was so determined to find out my ancestry, and my dad joked that my mother’s side of the family only goes back to the west side of Chicago. My brother also joked around with me saying, “you’re just Black,” but he still went ahead and bought me the kit (probably so I would finally shut up about it).
I grew anxious and increasingly impatient within the five weeks it took to process my saliva sample, and I found myself checking my email several times every day just waiting for the message that my results were in. The 23andMe site has a message that reads, “Welcome to You,” and I couldn’t wait to finally know who “You” really was. And then it came. “Your reports are ready,” the subject line said.
I frantically opened the email, clicked the link and typed in my login information. It was actually happening. I scrolled past all the preliminary information on the page, and went straight to the results: 62.8% Sub-Saharan African (mostly Nigerian), 34.3% European (mostly British and Irish) and 1.9% East Asian and Native American (mostly Native American).
There it was. I finally knew where my family was from and where it all started. Weirdly, though, I wasn’t quite sure how to feel. I had heard stories of people crying from excitement after finding out their results, and I had anticipated being completely overwhelmed with joy once I got mine. I expected this to be a life-changing moment of self-realization, as all uncertainties about my ethnic background disappeared. But I didn’t feel any of this. Instead, as I read my results, I found myself wanting to know more.
I thought about all of the generations of fair-skinned folks in my family, going all the way back to my great-grandparents, and I wondered at what point the European came in. Thirty-four was a large percentage of my ethnic makeup, and I wondered what the details behind that were. I began to try to connect dots and figure out stories in my head—if my great grandparents were light skinned and alive way back in the early 1900s, were their parents in interracial relationships? What year would that have been? Were interracial relationships legal? Were things consensual? I hurt thinking about my slave ancestors. In the back of my mind, I had known that as a Black woman, somewhere down the line one of my family members had to have been a slave, but this all made it feel so much more tangible.
As for my Sub-Saharan roots, I wanted to know, which tribe in Nigeria were my people from? What languages did they speak? What foods did they eat? I didn’t know any of this and now that I had a specific country to connect to, I desperately wanted to.
I texted my family the results, and later, I called my mom to discuss what I was feeling. We talked about how we already knew that we were African mixed with European before I took the test, so the results weren’t shocking, but the specific details were interesting nonetheless. My mom also comforted me and explained that all of the questions I had were only natural. Talking it out helped me to collect my thoughts and things were beginning to make more sense to me.
Choosing to try 23andMe is a decision I don’t regret. I am fortunate to be able to know my roots. But taking this test wasn’t about finding out who I was—I knew that as I sat in my African American studies courses at Northwestern University four years ago. I am Black mixed with a bunch of stuff, and when people ask me what my racial background is, I tell them just that. My Nigerian ancestors are just as much a part of me as are my grandparents from Mississippi. This test was less of a “Welcome to You” and more of a “Welcome to Them.” Now that I know where they are from, I am beginning my quest to find out their stories.
I have already begun building a family tree on Ancestry.com, where I’ve been able to pull up historical documents and view photos of family members. I’ve also arranged to speak with my granddad and his cousin who is our family historian to hear first-hand stories about my different ancestors. I’m still in the beginning stages of everything, and this may take months to years to complete. But I know that it will be worth it in the end. I am feeling closer to my ancestors than ever before, and I’m extremely thankful for that.