Monday, February 14, 2011

From the vault: My black history--70% African, 30% European: Who am I now?

I have spent a lot of time over the past few days ruminating on racial identity. My thoughts were sparked by a confluence of events: Last week, PBS aired the final episode of Dr. Henry Louis Gates' "Faces of America"--the one where participants including comedian Stephen Colbert, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and poet Elizabeth Alexander learned the results of autosomal DNA tests designed to uncover their "racial" lineage. I received a link to a study being conducted by the University of British Columbia, seeking to determine if and how similar DNA tests have influenced participants' identities. And I also received the results of my own autosomal test--the most recent of several DNA tests I have taken to help further my family history research, pinpoint my African origins and shed more light on my lineage. So, I have been wondering:

Can getting a piece of paper in the mail that says 20 percent this and 30 percent that and 50 percent the other change the way we see ourselves? Should it?

What does it mean for someone who identifies as culturally mono-racial to discover they are, in fact, genetically multi-racial?
What does it mean for a person of color in America to discover that they are genetically more white than anything else?
What are African Americans to feel about those white ancestors who are on our family trees because of the sexual violence regularly committed against our enslaved foremothers?

Should finding out that one is, for instance, of 50 percent English ancestry, lead a person of color to embrace that culture despite how that DNA came to be a part of her? What about Native American or Asian ancestry?

What is autosomal DNA testing and who cares how not-black you are?

I first became aware of tests that could determine a person's admixture or "racial" makeup when PBS aired the first of Dr. Gates' genealogy programs, "African American Lives." That show, which ignited my interest in family history research, also caused a buzz by revealing that the host, a self-identified black man and head of Harvard's W.E.B. DuBois Institute for African and African American Research, was genetically of more than 50 percent European in ancestry--in other words, more "white" than "black," despite being the progeny of two self-identified African American people. Of course, Gates' heritage was really no surprise for most other black Americans. We know that the black descendants of enslaved Africans are a mixed bunch. You can see it in our family portraits. You can hear it in our family stories. It is there on the vital records that black family historians mine for details about their heritage. There is no need for an expensive test to tell us what we already know. But genealogists are like good detectives. If we want to accurately tell our families' stories, we need to back up family lore with documents and DNA--just like the folks on CSI. Autosomal tests help confirm and illuminate our lineages.

Actually, these tests help confirm our BioGeographical Ancestry (BGA), according to Ancestry by DNA, the company that completed my testing. They are quick to point out that race, as we often hear, is a social construct not a biological one. (That is why I am using scare quotes around racial designations in this post.) Ancestry by DNA describes their process as follows:



What is BioGeographical Ancestry (BGA)?

BioGeographical Ancestry (BGA) is the term given to the biological or genetic component of race. BGA is a simple and objective description of the Ancestral origins of a person, in terms of the major population groups. (e.g. Indigenous American, East Asian, European, sub-Saharan African, etc.). BGA estimates are able to represent the mixed nature of many people and populations today. In the US, as in many other countries across the globe, there has been extensive mixing among populations that had initially been separate. In the fields of human genetics and anthropology, this mixing is referred to as admixture. BGA estimates can also be understood as individual admixture proportions, which take the form of a series of percentages that add to 100%. For example, a person in question may be found to have: 75% European; 15% African; 10% Indigenous American ancestry, or they may be found to have 100% European ancestry.


How is BioGeographical Ancestry estimated?

The AncestrybyDNA™ test uses an especially selected panel of Ancestry Informative Markers (AIMs) that have been characterized in a large number of well-defined population samples. These markers are selected on the bases of showing substantial differences in frequency between population groups and, as such, can tell us about the origins of a particular person whose ancestry is unknown. For example, the Duffy Null allele (FY*0) is very common (approaching fixation or an allele frequency of 100%) in all sub-Saharan African populations. Thus, a person with this allele is very likely to have some level of African ancestry. After the analysis of these AIMs, in a sample of a person's DNA, the likelihood (or probability) that a person is derived from any of the parental populations and any of the possible mixes of parental populations is calculated. The population (or combination of populations) where the likelihood is the highest is then taken to be the best estimate of the ancestral proportions of the person. Confidence intervals on these point estimates of ancestral proportions are also being calculated.



But the question for some isn't how does autosomal testing work, but why any self-respecting black person would be interested in exploring their non-African heritage. As a poster named Original Man on the African Ancestry forum offered, regarding black people who claim Native American heritage:

Be African and stop trying to be something that you are not!

There is a suspicion that too much attention to non-African ancestry denotes a desire to escape blackness, to be more than (i.e. better than) "just" black. This racial testing could simply be a corollary to "we got Indian in the family" type thinking.

In various genealogy and DNA testing forums, I have witnessed discussions that went like so: If we live in a majority white society that has decided one drop of African blood equals blackness; if we outwardly "look black;" if we are proud of our African roots, as we should be; if we know that we are descendants of enslaved Africans and we are culturally African American, what can be gained by learning about some small fraction of European or Asian or Native American DNA? What does it matter?




Putting the pieces of the puzzle together

I will tell you why it matters to me. For more than four years I have been piecing together my family's history through genealogy research and DNA testing. Shortly after taking a test to uncover my African ancestry, I wrote:

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." Read more...

I am visibly a black woman. I am culturally African American. I cannot imagine embracing another culture like this one--the one that the majority of my forefathers and foremothers passed down to me. But I can't complete the puzzle that is my family history if there are pieces missing. Imagine putting together a puzzle of a beautiful pastoral scene, but using only the pieces you like best--perhaps the ones with bright, prairie flowers on them. You might form a pretty bunch of flowers, but miss the round, yellow sun high in a blue sky. You might miss the dappled horses grazing in the background or a mighty oak bending over a stream. Your picture would be incomplete.

Whatever fraction of not-black I am, it is part of my whole. If nothing else, fractions of European, Asian or Native ancestry represent a part of our African ancestors' experience that should not be buried.

But does my DNA change who I am?

The University of British Columbia study I completed included several questions designed to ascertain whether DNA testing has changed the way I see myself:

Before you took any genetic genealogy tests, did you consider yourself Hispanic/Latino/Latina?

I have a hard time imagining how any sort of test could drastically change the way one self-identifies. Being Latina involves far more than DNA, doesn't it? (I found this question interesting. Admixture tests that I am aware of don't test for Latin ethnicity.) What group we identify with is more about culture than chromosomes, though these things often intersect.

In "Faces of America," Elizabeth Alexander, poet and Yale professor of African American and gender studies, learned that, like Henry Louis Gates, she is genetically more European (60 percent plus) than sub-Saharan African. Actress Eva Longoria discovered that rather than being predominately of Mexican indigenous heritage as she always assumed, she is more than 70 percent European. She also discovered that she is a distant cousin to cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who is of Chinese ancestry. "He's Mexican?" She said, laughingly, when Gates' revealed the tie. African American Gates found that he is related to biracial Canadian Malcolm Gladwell. Alexander was related to comedian Stephen Colbert, while patrician Meryl Streep had family ties to Jewish director Mike Nichols. Alexander says:

I think it's one of so many illustrations of the radical mixedness of Americanness and of African Americanness as well...It makes me think of America as just this basin into which so much has been poured and we don't even know the half of it...When we see all of the ways that conversations are so stratified, like we understand what "us" and "them" is all about, really we don't understand it half as well as we might. Again, that doesn't mean that the social realities that we live it are not the daily press that we live with, but to pause for just a moment and to think about all that has been poured into that basin, it's amazing. Watch it...

At another point in the program, Alexander said:

It just gets curiouser and curiouser...Of course, if all of us were just know by our DNA instead of the bodies we walk around in, then we'd have a whole different American history. Watch it...

Truly a member of a global family

I think that what Alexander meant is that we are so certain that our differences are ingrained in the fiber of our being--in the blood. But when scientists actually examine the parts of us that make us, well, us, we find that we are more alike than different, more connected than apart. We find that we are all cousins. We find that we all--ALL, black, Asian, white or Native--originated from an Eve on the African continent. We find that American descendants of enslaved Africans can discover genetic links to specific tribes in a land our ancestors were taken from long ago, but also to Europe and Asia and to the first Americans, our Native brothers and sisters.

The problems we have with each other are not in the blood (in the blood, we are family); our problems are in our hearts and minds.

So, now, after discovering that I am 70 percent sub-Saharan African with cultural ties to Balanta and Fula peoples in Guinea-Bissau, the Mende people in Sierra Leone, and the Mandinka people in Senegal...that I am part of Haplogroup L1b, one of the oldest female lineages on Earth...and that I am also 30 percent European...Who am I now?

Well...the same person I was before. I am a black American woman with all the rich, cultural history that implies. Thirty percent European biogeographical ancestry (likely derived through oppression and sexual violence), doesn't change my identity. I don't think 60 percent European ancestry would change my identity. I am a black American--my culture is my culture. I would also add that learning more about my African roots doesn't make me Senegalese or Fula or Mende. I am a black American--my culture is my culture.

Though genetic testing has not changed the way I look at myself, it has changed the way I look at my place in the world. I feel a greater sense of connectedness to my direct ancestors, but also to my larger global family. I am more aware of our oneness, or, as Elizabeth Alexander said, our mixedness. I am reminded of a passage from the Hindu Upanishads:

Those who see all creatures within themselves
And themselves in all creatures know no fear.
Those who see all creatures in themselves
And themselves in all creatures know no grief.
How can the multiplicity of life
Delude the one who sees its unity?

Through family research and genetic testing, I can now see me in the world and the world in me.

Watch geneticist Spencer Wells of National Geographic at a TED global conference, discussing his research about shared DNA and human diversity that sprang from a single source:


1 comment:

Kathy said...

I just wanted to say I love this post. I've read both of Dr. Gates's books on DNA and a fascinated by its potential to alter our perceptions of race and identity.

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