Since the big DNA reveal last week, I have spent a lot of time thinking about my Sub-Saharan African DNA. I have a sort of sense that it is rare to find out something so completely new about oneself at this stage of life. One thing that makes it strange is the way it invites me to recall and then rethink hundreds of little moments in my past. For instance, the fact that ever since I was a child, I’ve been asked over and over again some variation of this question:
Why are you brown? People usually didn’t put in precisely those terms, but it was always what they meant. Growing up, I never thought of these sorts of interrogations as racist. In fact, it kind of made me feel special that so many people were so bizarrely interested in the exact shade of my skin. They liked to make guesses about my ancestry; I heard all sorts of things, from Middle Eastern to South American to Indian. Someone even asked me once if I was Japanese. Of course, growing up in California, the most common supposition was Hispanic, as it was called then (or what might be called Latina/Latinx these days). When I thought about it on a conscious level at all, it was a little odd that my skin was a similar shade to lot of the Hispanic people in my town, and yet I was considered white.
At least I considered myself white. I grew up in a white world, with a white family culture. My only grandparent who seemed to have an enduring connection to the ‘old country’ was my paternal grandmother, who could on occasion be induced to speak in a Scottish brogue, or even dance the Highland fling. My maternal grandfather was in fact born in Mexico, but only because his Northern European Mormon ancestors crossed over the southern border of the United States in the 19th century so they could keep practicing polygamy. My liberally researched family tree contained no answer to the question of my skin colour, although I was pleased that I shared it with my mother and maternal grandmother. And later my daughter, who delighted me by coming along looking like an obliging little mini-me. Somewhere we have a photo of all of us together: four generations of women with the same mysterious golden-brown skin. I remember after my son was born—ivory white—sometimes holding him skin to skin with me and marvelling at the almost alien difference. Still, without even really being conscious of it—and whatever other people thought—I always imagined my own skin as just another shade of white.
Sometimes the ambiguity of my colouring did turn out to be a sort of asset. When I spent a semester in Syria, I fit in perfectly. People invariably thought I was a local until I opened my mouth and broken Arabic spilled out. And they had a hard time believing me when I said that I wasn’t at least of Arab descent. It was the same story in Chile a year later, where my Spanish quickly got more fluent than my Arabic ever had, helping me blend in even better. I was a Mormon missionary, so we were accustomed to talking to everyone on the street. Once I lived in the same area for six months, but had a succession of different blonde, white American companions. Nobody we talked to remembered me, but they all claimed to know ‘la rubia con ojos de colores’ (the blonde with colourful eyes), even though she was actually a different person each time.
When Tony and I got married, his family was pleased that I had brought the olive skin they associated with being Italian back into the family, even though as far as I knew, my skin wasn’t especially Italian either. It is true that when we lived in Italy, people usually started by assuming I was the Italian one, not Tony, especially since I had confusingly adopted his Italian surname. Looking back, I’m pretty sure that was one of the reasons I decided to keep the name even after my feminist awakening; I liked having a name that other people thought matched my skin. By this time maybe I was a little weary of the questions.
However, I did have questions of my own. For example, when one day my phone suddenly popped up with emojis in different skin tones, I flipped through them, holding my hand up next to the screen for reference. Logically enough, I selected the one that most closely matched my medium olive skin. But I stopped using that colour of emoji after a little while, upon discovering that it could be considered offensive for white people to appropriate emojis in darker skin tones. Even though I looked brown, I felt I couldn’t really claim to be brown. It was kind of a weird moment.
I am still not sure why, but eventually I made up my own personal genealogical mythology. I guess I just wanted to have some sort of answer to the perennial questions about the colour of my skin. So I started telling people that my skin was darker because I was ‘black Irish’, and therefore originally descended from Spanish pirates. Often I spun it further, elaborating that probably those Spanish pirates descended from the Moors of Al-Andalus. Sometimes I even threw in some bits about Selkies and seal skins. Not a single one of these elements had a remote basis in any sort of evidence or even family folklore (aside from the fact that when I smell the sea I really do get a feeling I might leap in, transform into a seal, and slide off into the depths). I just liked having something concrete to say, and rather enjoyed this origin story I’d dreamed up for myself.
I think this is why finding out that I had a significant amount of Sub-Saharan African DNA made such an impression. I’ve felt like a sort of imposter all these years, born with a mysterious skin colour people obviously thought wanted explaining. Now I finally feel in some odd sense like I’ve come by my genetic inheritance honestly. This explains my golden skin, and maybe even my unruly curls. I no longer have to shrug off the endless questions or make up my own fanciful histories. There’s a whole section of my heritage that’s no longer just one big question mark.
Of course, some questions do persist. According to this Washington Post article about white people discovering their black DNA, ‘when a significant amount of African DNA shows up in a presumably white person, there’s usually a story . . . of mystery, disappearance — something.’ As far as I know, not even the hint of such a story has survived in my family. I hope I will eventually be able to trace this out to an actual person, with a knowable history. Depending on how far back it goes, that might be just a dream.
In the meantime, it has already made me think differently about certain things. I’ve spent significant parts of the past decade or so trying to educate myself on race, oppression, and historic and contemporary power dynamics. These are obviously things that come up a lot when studying migration history, as I am doing right now in my master programme. But I haven’t limited myself to formal scholarship. My newest favourite fantasy/science fiction author, N.K. Jemisin, writes powerfully on these topics, and is African-American herself. Up until now I have felt somewhat on the outside looking in to these discussions. I am not about to appropriate a culture I didn’t grow up in, or a position vis-à-vis oppression that I have not experienced. Still, picturing these kinds of dynamics somewhere in my own family tree gives the whole thing a new immediacy and relatability.
Did you know, for example, that there is an actual name for the amount of African I am? The percentage that 23andMe assigned to me is 13.4%, which is a little over 1/8. In the slave societies of the Americas, people with that much African blood were called Octoroons. Another name for someone with exactly that percentage of African in them was Mustee. In both cases, these designations were created to assign (or more accurately, deny) legal rights. The classifications didn’t stop there; officially my children could also have been called Hexadecaroon or Mustefino. It would almost be ludicrously funny if it weren’t horrific.
Closer to home, the Mormon culture I grew up in operated within an explicitly racialised paradigm. The Book of Mormon tells the story of a group of people who separated into two tribes, the Nephites and the Lamanites. Because of the wickedness of the Lamanites, ‘the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them.’ The reason given for this ‘sore cursing’ is to prevent the righteous Nephites from being ‘enticed’ by them. The book goes on to warn that the curse of black skin will also fall on the descendants of anyone who intermarries with the Lamanites. It finishes by linking the curse of black skin with degenerate moral qualities, describing how ‘because of their cursing which was upon them they did become an idle people, full of mischief and subtlety.’ (You can read the full text here, straight off the Mormon Church’s current website.) I wonder how I would have felt reading this as a child if I had known the tint to my skin derived from my own black ancestors?
To be fair, many 21st century Mormons are uncomfortable with this scripture as written, and will rationalise that the ‘skin of blackness’ was meant in one or another metaphorical sense. However, it wasn’t until 1978 that people with any known black ancestry were allowed to participate in the most significant Mormon rituals and ceremonies, such as those that Mormons believe enable families to be together forever. My own parents were married a year later, in 1979. Since presumably my African genetic heritage is from one or the other (or both), they would have only been barely able to be married in a Mormon temple had their ancestry been known.
It’s a tangle of thoughts and emotions, contemplating what all this means. It reminds me a bit of a snippet of poetry my grandfather used to recite, ironically enough by British imperialist Rudyard Kipling:
All good people agree,
And all good people say,
All nice people, like Us, are We
And every one else is They:
But if you cross over the sea,
Instead of over the way,
You may end by (think of it!) looking on We
As only a sort of They!
Sometimes you don’t even have to cross over the sea. Sometimes your ancestors did that already, and you find that We and They are so genetically intermingled that perhaps we really ought not to still even be having this conversation in the year 2020. And yet here we are. So yes, I suppose, let me tell you about why I am brown.