REGION APPROXIMATE AMOUNT
I. Africa, 69%
A. There were chains. History books always describe the chains. Thick, heavy chains the width of a baby’s forearm. This baby is carried close, so close to mama’s breast. Mama wants to press, press, press baby through her chest so baby crawls back inside and down into her womb and never sees the light of this day. This day they march paths clinking with linked chains across a continent in the sun, the rain, the cold. The cold is no longer felt on their skin; it is just more weight on their bodies. So heavy, they pray the weight will bury them in the earth. So they can grow into trees white bodies walk around—seven, eight, nine times—with snapping branches that strangle white necks like chains the width of the Forgetfulness Tree. These chains, always the chains, the width of fists, the width of wide mouths screaming or wailing or closed in fear or beat shut or silenced with cut-out tongues, the width of leather braided snakes slithering, biting across legs, slice naked backs on the way to Ouidah. But this baby, this mother, these soon-to-be slaves, are not my ancestors. I don’t know who they are.
B. But I envisioned a man. My paternal grandfather. I met him once. His dark brown skin was the same shade as my father’s, blacker around the eyes and lips. A slim man the same height as my dad, he had our family’s signature nose. The meeting was brief. My father and I had ridden to Richmond to see my grandfather at his mother’s house—my great grandmother’s house—one day when I was in high school…or maybe middle school…the time we spent so short and inconsequential, I can hardly remember when it was. My father didn’t tell me where we were going. We just appeared at a row house in the city. He introduced me to a woman, a mean-looking black woman1 who resembled a man sitting on the couch in the living room. That man resembled my dad so much that I think even the lines around their mouths—nervous smiles, easy frowns—were the same. I realized at some point, but not until after we left that I’d just met my grandfather and great grandmother for the first time—the only time.
William Zinsser wrote in his essay “How to Write a Memoir,” “One of the saddest sentences I know is ‘I wish I had asked my mother about that.’ Or my father. Or my grandmother. Or my grandfather.” I didn’t say anything to my grandfather other than “hi” and “bye.” When you are a teenager, so affected by boredom, it’s impossible to care about anything other than the lyrics to your favorite song or the name of the boy you like or the lyrics to his favorite song. My father now mentions his father to me in passing every few years: “Had to go see about him,” he says. “Oh yeah?” I say.
I began an online family tree a few months ago. I was afraid to call and ask my dad for his father’s name2 and date of birth. So, I sent him a text. I entered my grandfather’s information, hoping to receive little leafy “Coleman Family Tree” hints that would help me find out more about him. As Zinsser further explains, “Only when they have children of their own—and feel the first twinges of their own advancing age—do they suddenly want to know more about their family heritage and all its accretions of anecdote and lore.” This is true. That teenager meeting her paternal lineage for the first time wasn’t listening, was not interested, and could care less about the man and woman sitting with her in that room let alone their heritage. Ancestry is a comfort used to ease the passing of time: if we tell the tale of those before us, then those after us will tell ours. And then during the storytelling, we will live again. But, that is the concern of the dying, and I, at that age, was immortal.
But I no longer will live forever, and I owe my two black sons something more than just their great-grandfather’s name. The melanin from those trace African genes manifested differently in my son James. We called him James Brown the first year of his life. He is darker than the rest of us. One day when he isn’t insulated inside the family bubble, he will understand the luxury of his brother’s, his mother’s, his father’s light skin and feel the lack of it sting his own. I already see it happening: The doctor taking blood is gentler with my fairer son, apologetic—doting even—but he pricks James over and over, angry he cannot find a vein while James’ screams wail through the office; The white parents on the playground who prefer to ask questions about his brother, “Oh, what’s his name?” never to inquire about James, they just aren’t interested in him. This is why we stopped calling him James Brown. It was a stupid joke anyway. Maybe he will pretend to be adopted when he gets older, pretend not to belong to us. I will understand. It is because I know that I owe a due diligence to learn why generations of my father’s father’s faces are etched over his.
C. Benin/Togo: 33%. What I do know is that my paternal ancestor lost. He lost the battle against King Agaja, because if my ancestor had won, he would not be my ancestor. If he had won, if he were a king or a chief, he would not have been sold by his king or chief. If my ancestor had won, artists would’ve made carvings of his face out of wood and brass. They would pay tribute to his sons in Lagos. Those sons would ride around in fancy cars wearing fancy clothes and fancy jewelry with fancy wives. I’d be Yoruba or maybe even Igbo. Ancestry.com says we share DNA, but that is why this is called an “ethnicity estimate” and not a “cultural match finder.”
If my ancestor had won the battle, they would not have gathered up all his kin. They would not have tricked his son into walking near the shore to see the amazing boats then tied him up and starved him so that later he would die and be thrown overboard. And those witnessing would not have wished their souls were in that body instead of the bones, the weight, they carried.
My ancestor would not have been locked inside an iron face mask that only allowed him to see straight ahead. And, not far. Not this far where his future and my past meet, and I know his name. He could see only the second ahead of the second he lived because the second after that he may have died—and he would not have been my ancestor then either. Saw only straight ahead because, really, what was there behind him to see? What he was leaving behind —a name, a country, a family, a legacy—he wasn’t coming back to, because he is my ancestor, and I am a black American.
He lost. Or maybe he was so strong, so virile, so much a warrior that he threatened King Agaja, the great King of Dahomey and was sold out of jealousy. Or maybe he was kidnapped and forced to lie in a dark hole next to the woman with the baby girl who isn’t my ancestor.3 Either way, he was destined to lose. Dahomey fell. Colonialism won.
D. Or maybe it is 1619 and British pirates have commandeered the boat my ancestor is chained to. It is night and a man who reminds me of Captain Hook4 threatens to slice the throats of the Portuguese seamen operating a ship containing Angolan human cargo sailing for Never Never Land. Yet said cargo eventually arrives on the shores of Jamestown, Virginia, 67.6 miles away from my hometown.5
The scenic Alt 95 route from Maryland to Williamsburg, Virginia, is dotted with historical markers and tourist traps commemorating the colony. My husband and I once drove the rural route for my cousin’s wedding on the campus of William and Mary. She married a white man in Wren Chapel, which was built in 1695 when Jamestown was still the capital of the colony and Williamsburg, was called Middle Plantation.6 Our ancestor, the one on that boat, laid the first bricks for that church. She could have. She could’ve been a laundress who washed the clothes of the white men studying there, touching her there. She could have scrubbed the floors and cooked the food for those men who dragged her behind the building she built, tore her dress away, stuck themselves inside her, and made more ancestors that would eventually study at that college and marry a white man inside the building she built.
When John Rolfe described the meager purchase price paid for our ancestor who laid that first brick—that very first American slave trade—maybe he didn’t consider the fact that his wife, Pocahontas, could’ve been sold for that same thrifty deal too. Or maybe he did know that, and Pocahontas was already laying down bricks at another historic site, washing clothes for other historical men, and being brutalized while waiting for such honors as Disney to recreate her likeness and the State of Virginia to mark her footsteps along the alternative rural route to I-95.
II. Europe, 29%
A. Surname “Coleman” of Irish and English origin. According to Ancestry.com, “Anglicized form of Gaelic Ó Colmáin ‘descendant of Colmán’… English: occupational name for a burner of charcoal or a gatherer of coal… English: occupational name for the servant of a man named Cole. Jewish…Americanized form of Kalman. Americanized form of German Kohlmann or Kuhlmann;”7
- Or the surname of a plantation owner who made his slaves take his last name;
- Or because, later, when the first census takers after Emancipation came around asking for full names, my relative wasn’t quick enough to say “Freeman.”
B. One day when I was in middle school, my mother came to pick me up. I was outside, standing next to a white boy from my class. We both watched my mama as she approached. It was a beautiful day. My mom had long, straight black hair that the wind blew around her head with ease as in a Pantene commercial. As she approached, the sun, shining on her from an angle, lightened her face. I laughed and said to the boy next to me, “My mama looks like a white lady.” He stared at me confused, then back at her, a woman he had never seen before, a tall woman with pale skin and yellow undertones—“high yellow”—with long straight hair, and said she was white. He said she wasn’t my mama because that woman was white. And by omission, I was not.
My mother? A white woman!
My mom is one of the blackest people I know. Not “black” as in skin the color of darkness, but “black” as in a Southern black woman. My mother cooked pigs’ feet, cleaned chitterlings, and fried a mean chicken leg. She was loud and said chile, and mmm hmm, and nigga and laughed with her entire chest. She loved Gerald Levert and Luther Vandross and had a poster of Michael Jordan hanging on her wall, all her chocolate men. She made sure to tell me when I was not “black” enough: When I talked “proper” like a white girl, or listened to “white music”; and ooo the fit she had when I went to the movies with a blue-haired, grunge-dressing white boy…
She was angry. Friends and cousins pulled her hair, called her names—“white girl,” “stuck-up.” She built a rep around her temper. My mama would fight anyone, for any reason. She did not marvel in the luxury of her light skin. She battled to define her blackness by any means necessary. Because it was the whiteness in her, that made her different. She will tell you that she chose the darkest man she could find to date (my father) because she was so light and hated her skin. She never, ever wanted anyone to think she was white.
If this had been a few months later, after my mother cut her beautiful, straight “good” hair into a punk-looking fade an inch longer than Grace Jones’, that white boy in my class would’ve never said that. And, for the record, my mother is no Carol Channing, no J. Edgar Hoover, she could never get away with pretending to be Italian, not light enough to pass pass. But, at that moment, to that child, she did. Yet I didn’t.
This led to my short stint as a liar. I began telling kids at school I was adopted. The white boy could authenticate the fact my mother was white. I told them my father was black. But, that I was neither, and therefore, I was adopted. I said that. I was neither.
I wanted to be exotic. Ashland was typically Southern: Rich in history starting back from our country’s founding, a town made up of only black and white people who lived segregated throughout. There were a few “others”: One Southeast Asian family, two Korean sisters adopted by a local white family, the kid with a “Jamaican” accent who was really from Guyana, and later when more Hispanic immigrants were moving into rural southern towns we actually started to diversify—there were, at least, two or three immigrant families. I was learning Spanish then. My Spanish name was Veronica. In that part of a young person’s mind, you know, that part that knows she is telling a lie, but wants so badly for that lie to be true, to reveal some new, interesting, unique and unusual thing about her, make her stand out, be different, turn her into a superstar—and yet, who still wants that lie to be a lie because she loves her parents—in that mixed up part of my mind, I was a Latina. I was Veronica. If I had to be anything at all.
This lasted maybe a week. I stopped telling that story one day at my cousin’s house. We were swinging on the playground set she had in her backyard. I told her the tale: my mother is white, my father is black, and I am neither, so I am adopted. The lie so fluid was like water dripping from my lips.
She never broke the stride of her swing. “No you’re not,” she said.
I slowed down to a stop and asked, “How do you know?” as if she had some insight that I didn’t, as if there were some real question as to whether or not I was actually adopted and secretly a Latina.
She said, “Because you’re not,” a slight shrug, a kick of her feet and she swung back so her legs went straight in the air, her face toward the sky.
C. A Brief History of Rape, Not Rape, and Other Confusing Facts:
- About 1851: A slave named “Mollie” gives birth to a son named Botts who is later listed as “mulatto” on the 1910 census. Botts is my great grandfather three times removed. I tried to search for his mother, but only found documents that said: “1, 20, F, B” or some variation thereof. She was a slave; I was never going to find more. I could’ve pretended to search for his father. Instead, I entered “Slaveholder Morris” into my family tree and moved on.
- I am a product of rape.
- I am a product of slavery.
- 1963: A sixteen-year-old descendant of Botts Morris has a baby by a man from two counties over who is fifteen years her senior and married with children her age. How this man and child met, I do not know. How this man and child had sex, I can only speculate. My mother claims his family was part white, but I never met him and she said he only came around a few times. So little, in fact, that when I asked her for her father’s name, she did not know it, only that it was “Walker” or “Warren” or “William.” The sixteen-year-old leaves her daughter to be raised by her sister. She runs away from home, the poor country life, to live a more exciting one in the city, party with Marvin Gaye, dance the night away at Studio 54, have two more children she would also leave for someone else to raise and almost never speak of the man who fathered her first born child, at least not to her granddaughter.
- I am almost 30% white, which means my European relative is close—a great grandparent or great great grandparent—yet I have no concrete relative to point to, no one I can name.
- 1993: The granddaughter of the former sixteen-year-old descendant of Botts Morris will have her breasts fondled by a man while at her grandmother’s house. The former sixteen-year-old descendant of Botts Morris will tell that granddaughter it was her own fault she was molested; the girl was too grown and always in a man’s face.
- And now, I wonder whether my grandmother meant to say that to me or if she was talking out loud to herself.
III. Asian, less than 2%8
A. Charted on my computer screen brightly before my eyes in desensitized, deadening plainness were my ancestry DNA results, an entire history of slavery, rape, oppression—love, family, pride—simplified into graph form. Digesting this information physically impacted me as if all of those years and people had bum-rushed my body at once instead of slowing contributing to my blood year after year. Centuries at my fingertips yet the only surprise was the trace Asian genes. I am still working out what all of this means to me. I do know my middle school self would’ve clung to this information as a badge of otherness, what made me different than all the other black girls whose DNA was exactly like mine. I am undeniably American. Yet, this spark of difference gave me a fluttering heart, a sense that something powerful had happened to someone in the long line of those who created me. I imagine an ancient Asian ancestor crossing the desert to become an African warrior, or sailing the Pacific to settle this country and wind herself into the genetic fabric of Native Americans. But that is not what happened.
Instead, she followed a downing sun west, the brilliant, blazing orb bowing behind the horizon. Seventy years captive, the march from Babylon mimicked the way there—just without the chains. Further across the world, across a continent, her drowned feet dragged through orange sand, her footsteps disappearing with the wind like those of her mother and father a generation ago.
Her mother had sung of Zion with King Jeconiah on the road to Babylon. Such cruel punishment: to demand mirth in the face of oppression as you confront no return, forcing a song, happiness at the moment of its antithesis. But they sang to not forget. “For we were slaves; yet our God has not forsaken us in our bondage, but has extended mercy to us in the sight of the kings of Persia, to give us a reviving, to set up the house of our God, and to repair the desolations thereof, and to give us a wall in Judah and in Jerusalem.”9 To be led out of bondage, yet still not be free.
1. Not “black” as in the ethnicity, but “black” as in her skin, the color of darkness.↩
2. I didn’t even know his name. I wasn’t afraid that my father wouldn’t tell me his father’s name, but that he would ask me why I didn’t know, and I would have to explain to him and say, “It’s because you and my mother were never married. It’s because I only saw you on the weekends and holidays as a kid and it wasn’t until I was practically an adult that we became close.” Or I’d say, “You told me he abused your mother that she had to divorce him because she thought he would kill her.” Either way, because of one or the other or both, how the hell would I know his name?↩
3. But, maybe she is yours.↩
4. Because my sons are obsessed with the Disney Channel show where children outsmart a sea captain dressed as a British nobleman disguised as a French slave trader.↩
5. The town of Ashland, Virginia, the so-called “Center of the Universe,” located in Hanover County, once home of the largest slave population in the entire State of Virginia, the same state where slaves were first brought to America, the real center of the universe.↩
6. I find power in this act, a great “fuck you,” to the years of oppression, segregation, and dehumanization approved of within the walls of that place.↩
7. Full disclosure, here is all my whiteness: Europe West (France, Germany, etc.) 10%, Ireland 9%, Trace Regions 10% (Scandinavia 4%, Great Britain 3%, Finland/Northwest Russia 2%, European Jewish 1%). Oh boy, I’m white ya’ll.↩
8. The majority of this percentage is from the Caucasus region which includes Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey.↩
9. Ezra 9:9↩