Wednesday, February 24, 2010

From the vault: It's in the blood or my story began before I did


Sankofa: A word in the Akan language of Ghana meaning "go back and take."


[Editor's note: This article was originally posted in April 2009]

The Fulbe woman above is me...or part of me. Let me explain.

I am obsessed with my ancestors. What they looked like. How they lived. Their habits. Their love lives. Their births and deaths.

My interest was sparked about three years ago when I learned, through Henry Louis Gates' "African American Lives" series, about my great-great-grandfather Constantine. He was born into slavery, probably in Georgia, and then transported to Mississippi by his owner, along with my great-great-grandmother, Violet. At emancipation, Constantine was about 44 years old--older than I am today. He had spent a lifetime in servitude and could not read or write. But Constantine had learned the value of education and land ownership. And by the time the 1880 census was taken, he was literate. While learning to read and write, he also bartered eight bales of cleaned cotton (4,000 pounds) that he picked on his own time for 80 acres of prime bottomland in Mississippi.

This story means a lot to me. It embodies the ethos of my father's family--values that were passed on to me. Constantine's belief in education (He eventually founded a school for black children.) and ownership paved the way for my success. The 80 acres, that I imagine my great-great-grandmother and he broke their backs to pick, while still living next door to the family that once owned them, became part of his son Sanford's (my great-grandfather) land, which became part of my grandfather Alonzo's nearly 200 acres that are still in the family today.

It was Constantine's story that whetted my appetite for family research. It sent me scouring the Web, libraries, Mormon centers and county records for more on the people whose lives and actions helped to make me...me. I uncovered other stories, some equally inspiring, some mundane, some tragic. I found my maternal great-grandmother Josephine's death certificate (She was only 30 when she passed.) and my maternal great-grandmother Mattie's poetry. And, two days before last year's historic election, found record of where her father, a mixed-race man like our eventual president, registered to vote for the first time, under the Reconstruction Act, on July 11, 1867.

As a writer, it thrills me to know that my great-grandmother also enjoyed the written word. It is also good to know how much my maternal great-great-grandfather valued his new right to vote--no matter how fleeting it may have been.

As I discovered the joys of genealogy, I also became fascinated with science's role in it--specifically how DNA testing is transforming the field and changing the way we think about who we are. Intrigued by National Geographic's Genographic Project and the work of the geneticist Spencer Wells, I completed my first round of genetic testing.

For less than $100, I was able to participate in this project, learn about my very earliest maternal ancestors (If you are a man, the test traces your patrilineal line.), and receive DNA mapping that I can use to take more extensive tests and make family connections. My package from National Geographic included a swab kit that I used to scrape my cheek and return the sample to the lab. I purchased one test for myself to explore my matrilineal line (my mother's mother's mother's mother's mother' mother and so on), and one for my father to capture his patrilineal line. Here is just a little of what I learned:

I am part of Haplogroup L1b, one of the oldest female lineages on Earth.

Haplogroup L1b, a subclade of L1 which arose about 100,000 YBP (years before present), itself appeared on the African mitochondrial DNA scene approximately 30,000 years ago. It is found in the peoples of north, west and central Africa.

L1b is found in highest frequency (13%) in West Africa most likely due to the Bantu Expansions. In a recent study by Dr. Bruce Jackson et al, areas such as Sierra Leone, have been found to occur in from 12-27% of Mende, Limba and Loko samples tested. L1b is also found in high frequency in the Mandenka, Wolof and Fulani of Senegal. As a result of the Atlantic Slave Trade whereby natives from Sierra Leone were brought to North America and specifically the South Carolina area, L1b is also found in 10% of African Americans.

Finding My Tribe

I know I've shared a lot of this information on my blog before, but this weekend I took hold of yet another thread in the fabric of my history. Through testing with African Ancestry, using the genetic mapping provided by The Genographic Project, I have learned the specific peoples in Africa who share my genetic code, providing a clue to where my enslaved ancestors (maternal) came from. My letter from African Ancestry reads:


The mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) sequence that we determined from you sample shares ancestry with people in several countries today: Balanta and Fula peoples in Guinea-Bissau, the Mende people in Sierra Leone, and the Mandinka people in Senegal.

As with my great-grandmother's poems and the results of my first DNA test, I've carried the African Ancestry results around like a charm for days. This ancestry has been lost to my family for centuries. Now that I have found it, I want to keep it close.

You may wonder why all this dusty information, interesting though it is, matters to a 21st century Midwestern American woman. What difference does it make?

There's that old saw: "You can't know where you are going, if you don't know where you've been." Where black Americans have been is all muddled, isn't it? Everything about our past and present is filtered through the lens of a society where we (and the continent we came from) are marginalized. You have to dig to find our real histories, weed through the distortions and biases. It is easy to believe, if you let the mainstream tell it, that the African-American story begins in slavery and ends in failure and dysfunction. That's not true. The blood doesn't lie. There are real stories of triumph and survival and happiness and success cloaked in the leaves of our family trees. There are customs and rituals and beliefs that our ancestors were forced to forget, but we can remember them.

I am not Pollyanna about this. I don't romanticize the lives of my forebears or my "cousins" in Guinea-Bissau, Sierra Leone and Senegal. There are hard and ugly stories to be found on the family tree--rotted fruit. But we hear plenty about those things already, don't we? That it is why it is smart to keep good things in your pocket--a cheerful poem written by the mother of 10 kids on a farm in rural Alabama, or the knowledge that Balanta people resisted colonial rule by the Portuguese. These good things are part of who I am.

When I said the Fulbe woman above was me, I meant that the history of my direct ancestors as well as "my people" have made me the person I am today. Because they were who they were, I am who I am. It would be a shame not to "know" the people who walked before me. They gave me life. They make me proud. They give me strength. They are testament to the resilience of my "blood."

5 comments:

Kelly Hogaboom said...

Wow... wonderful. This is a great post for Black History Month; also, I commend you for doing all the work of looking into family history.

I particularly liked this:

I am not Pollyanna about this. I don't romanticize the lives of my forebears or my "cousins" in Guinea-Bissau, Sierra Leone and Senegal. There are hard and ugly stories to be found on the family tree--rotted fruit. But we hear plenty about those things already, don't we? That it is why it is smart to keep good things in your pocket--a cheerful poem written by the mother of 10 kids on a farm in rural Alabama, or the knowledge that Balanta people resisted colonial rule by the Portuguese. These good things are part of who I am.

I don't know if this makes sense, but being raised white in America, the "struggles" our progenitors went through are often portrayed as noble and right and historically beautiful (also, I seem to notice examples of predecessor struggle are sometimes used by whites to minimize or deny the acute difficulties, oppressions, and marginalization other races have faced and continue to face)... not tragic and depressing and, as you say, destined for dysfunction. You seem to be reclaiming the story of your people in a way that is honest, joyful, intelligent, measured, and personal.

Renee said...

Knowing where you come from and your roots is such an important thing. I have been considering getting this test done for awhile now. Having children has only intensified this quest for me.

CaitieCat said...

This is an outstanding post, thank you very much. I don't know why it reached me so clearly, but every instance of the word "slave" and its derivatives hit me like a metaphysical blow. I think, like the Holocaust, it's a level of hideousness it's hard to have one's mind encompass, when one is fortunate enough that the experience of that level is external. Another example of the privilege I bear in my skin, and which my ancestors (British military family, traditionally) helped to create, and which it is my duty to abolish.

Thank you for this very personal and very moving post.

Anne said...

That was absolutely spellbinding. As a biracial woman myself, it's been difficult for me to gain a real understanding and appreciation for my African roots. Your blog post has made me respect and love my ancestors so much more - and rightfully so. Your words are poignant and have touched me at my very core. Thank you.

Nia said...

Thank you for this. I really appreciate the way you wrote about this topic because I find that whenever the subject comes up about persons of African descent tracing their African ancestry, people are always quick to highlight all the negative things we did to each other and to others. All other ethnic groups look back on their ancestry as a source of pride, but whenever Black people do this we are always accused of fantasizing and romanticizing.
I am glad that you said it is fine to be honest and realistic about your ancestry, while at the same time taking pride in the positive things that took place within certain circumstances.

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