Like most African Americans from the southeast coast of the United States I thought I knew my ethnic heritage. We have a lengthy heritage for the most part, entwined for better or worse, with the stodgy old plantation culture of colonial America. So, we have names like Smith, Brown, Black, and White but also Irish and Scottish surnames as well as plenty monikers from elsewhere across Europe. Some of us mixed right into Native American communities becoming Seminole, Creek, and Lumbee—a beautiful, undeniably tri-racial people. Back to the beginning of my story, we assume we know our heritage and by all indications it is West African with some English/Irish and Native American but before I put the period there, that has come to mean African American, right? Well, maybe not.
I’m writing a book about race; mixed raced, people called tri-racial and bi-racial in America. Along the way, I started paying closer attention to DNA ancestry tests and through paying attention I started to hear diverse conversations. The one that stuck in my mind, in my craw actually was the one where people defined culturally as “white” had tests coming back with smidgens of Sub-Saharan African (SSE). These people would then converse online chatting more freely in the virtual world than perhaps they do in the real world, about whether or not they had thick lips, frizzy hair and well … a big butt. Some would write in to these different websites with riotous indignation: These tests are flawed, they’d assert, I’m pure white, white as a lily, all my heritage traces back to merry old England, I’ve got the paper work to prove it! Okay, so I paraphrase but only to make the point of what I was seeing.
At my writer’s desk I was relatively smug. I already knew and accepted that I was mixed. The typical, dare I say, all American mix, Black, White, and Red. End of story … but not quite. I kept reading those chats. It became almost compulsive must-read material. I found African American-orientated websites with pissed off people too—ones where folk couldn’t find their haplogroup to be Sub-Saharan African. If you’re not up on all this lingo, if you can’t find your haplogroup in the place you feel is your origin—well, some one has some explaining to do or you have to do some research on your own. These people who could not find their haplogroups in typical Sub-Saharan African lineage, for example the “L” group, where pissed with a capitol “P.”
Still at my writer’s chair now something funny began to percolate. Some white folks, perhaps they were not white but light skinned blacks passing for white—hence the obvious “black” phenotypes cropping up, for example deeply tanned skin, thicker lips, broad noses. . .the “big ass” mentioned in a different Divine Caroline article. Hmmm, oh well, I thought, serves them right. We knew many of us (African Americans) were mixed on the plantation, good to see the stirring of the stew went both ways.
But I got up out of my comfy writer’s chair. I started feeling my way in society with blinders off and also remembering, how so many different cultures embraced me as one of their own. I mean far out people to the tightly fixed notion that most of us African American hold dear like Aborigines, South East Asian Indians, Balkan people, and Mediterranean as well as Arabic speakers. Curiosity got the best of me. I had one test by National Geographic through the Genographic Project, not satisfied simply knowing my haplotype I wanted percentages so I went for another test (DNA by Ancestry) but what do percentages tell you unless you know what those percentages consist of so I had even more specific tests by DNA Tribes and Family Tree DNA—six in all and sad to say, I’m not finished yet.
Now, I must admit I was frustrated as everyone else when the results received where not those anticipated. I found scant Native American though my great-great grandmother was said to be Cherokee. Nothing from the British Isles though my great grandfather was said to be British and most shocking of all, my African profile was completely skewed. Rather than the West African heritage showing up prominent as expected I was awash in South African of every which type. More over I have even more Eastern African than Western and some Northern thrown in there.
Ok, almost as a joke … yes, it must be a karmic joke, the day after St. Patrick’s my sixth result came rolling in over the internet transom as a PDF file. And on the first page of results after my known hefty dose of South African and African American was a plausible ratio from Ireland which none of the previous tests showed. But it was too late to bust out the Emerald Green—the day way over, lol.
I am that mixing pot I hear about less and less. No wonder different types of people respond to me as though I am one of their own, in some ways I am. Very African—no surprise there. The South African makes me proud as does the affiliation with nomadic east Africans because they have had a lot thrown at them and they keep going. I am mostly of the South and East with some Western and Northern and that arrangement is indeed a surprise and wonderful. What better gift that to find I am continental African? Today’s refinements continued to show an appreciable Arabic and Mesopotamian relationship. I must say though who those or that relative was I am totally uncertain. It is a delicious mystery. There was Sicilian this time—huh—some Balkan and nomadic Mongolian … more scratches of the head.
What I love about these tests is I could spin about in the mirror, looking for stereotypes of one type or another maybe reflect on my wide by flat ass but instead I’ve gone to the history books hitting them very hard. I see the South African’s were taken over for a time by Arabic speakers as well as the Portuguese. I see through history books that ethnicity is kind of a joke and invasions blurred geographic boundaries and the people within, stirring the pot and stirring the pot and stirring the pot some more until a South African with Italian/Portuguese blood, layered over with Moroccan/Arab some Balkan and even smidgens of India and Polynesia is possible.
I think these DNA tests are beautiful and spiritually opening though far from perfected. They verify that we are a blended folk and that we should respect that from within ourselves and by all means we should respect other cultures. Who knows—perhaps they are our own? These days culture seems a lot more tangible that race, so I must return to that writer’s chair, hopefully with fresh and innovative notions.