For my birthday, Ryan (my wonderful husband) gave me a DNA kit from the folks at 23andme.com. It was an incredibly thoughtful present, and he did his research to make sure that I’d get the most out of the opportunity. He knew that I had been interested in my ancestry for a while, and since I never knew my dad it would be the first bit of information I’ve ever gotten about him.
I sent in my bio-sample (a whole lot of saliva — I know, eww) pretty much the next day, and within two weeks my DNA had been run through the full service and the results were ready. It was astonishingly fast. It probably has something to do with the fact that I live very close to the labs in Mountain View, so if you’re across the country or something your results may vary.
When I got the email saying that my test results were online, I actually went through and read them on my phone. In some ways what I found out was genuinely surprising, and in a lot of ways it’s exactly what I should have expected. I’ll save all of the health results for another post; right now I want to talk about my ancestry results.
My mother apparently belongs to the haplogroup L1c4, which is found almost exclusively in west Africa. It’s an ancient family of man, and it’s quite common in African-Americans. That sounds about right; as far as I know, my mother was straight-up black. Well, not really. I think she was light-skinned, which is why nearly all of my brothers and sisters tend towards the lighter hues. What’s really fascinating is that the L1c branch of man includes the forest-dwelling Pygmies of west and central Africa, and the Bantu-speaking peoples there.
My father belongs to the haplogroup E1b1a8a1*, and yes, the star is important. This is really interesting; it’s a massive sub-group, and some 60% of African-American males fall within the E1b1a subgroup. It’s quite likely that my paternal ancestors came here on slave ships, surviving the Middle Passage to work in the southeastern United States. Both my paternal and maternal ancestors are fairly common in America, so my mother was descended from slaves as well most likely.
At first I have to admit that I was a little disappointed. I had hoped for some strange identifier of my father’s ancestry, something I could use to dig for more information. Knowing that he comes from a very common sub-group means that…well, he could have been anyone. But then, I realized that he could have been…anyone. And that puts me in a very common place with people in African-American culture, raised by a hard-working single mother without any knowledge of their fathers.
In many ways, this makes me feel a kinship with my community. Not to romanticize, but the story of my family is the typical story of most black Americans. My ancestors were brought here under terrible circumstances and subjected to horrible abuses. Yet somehow they not only survived, they flourished; they found someone to love, they made a family, and the line survived through slavery and the Civil War, the rough treatment of the new South, segregation, the civil rights movement, the rise of black culture and all the troubles we’ve seen with black-on-black violence, poverty and crime. I’m the product of 150 years of struggle, and even though my family is broken and I carry a lot of their scars with me, my legacy is one of survival and flourishing in the face of adversity.
Even though I’m not any closer to knowing my actual mother and father, the DNA results did exactly what I hoped they would. They gave me roots that I can draw from, put me in a place where I can make sense of my history and connect my life’s narrative to much grander, longer one that stretches back decades. I feel like I know my people now. I come from western Africa, my ancestors were the Bantu who spread through the entire continent beneath the Sahara desert. They were sold into slavery, came here to America and overcame everything to bear children, to thrive in a hostile society. I don’t know the details, but the broad strokes are enough for now. It’s amazing that I’m here, living this life. I’m very grateful for it, and for the unknown family who lived their lives to provide it for me. I can’t waste what I’ve been given. I’ll honor where I come from by living as well as I can and helping others to do the same.
At long last, it feels very good to know where I’ve come from, and to confirm my ancestor’s home.