If you ask me where I’m from, I’ll tell you South Carolina. If you ask me where my family is from, I’ll name some towns in Alabama, counties in Carolina. Beyond that, my knowledge of my ancestry is pretty rudimentary, and honestly based on assumptions that center on one thing that’s common for GRITS—I am descended from enslaved peoples.
This is something I used to be pretty ashamed of. I have no recollections of being embarrassed to be black, but I do recall not wanting to be the type of black I am, something I referred to as a child as being “Just Black.” Now, I prefer the term Black American, which refers to the ethnic identity of people who have descended from the enslaved Africans who were brought to this country. We’ve been called many things over the years—negroes, colored, and now usually “African-American.” I have never identified with this phrase, even though as a child I was desperate to feel African, connected to the people I read about in folk stories and young adult novels (Shout out to my mom for always surrounding me with black literature though). Africans were strong and beautiful, they had specific cultures and languages and heritages that I felt I lacked as a girl whose parents first languages were English, whose grandparents were born sharecroppers and farmers. There was nothing special about being “just black,” and I felt ashamed—I wanted to know what I “was.”
I wanted to know where in Africa my ancestors were from. I had this sort of far fetched idea that if I knew, I would start to learn the language and the customs of these places and one day perhaps return there, if only to visit, and be welcomed home in the way that people are in those stories your hotep uncle shares on Facebook. I became enamored with the idea of getting my DNA tests done through one of the many services that are now available so I could begin my transition to the motherland.
Now we been had told you that you should be listening to Another Round with Heben and Tracy, but if you haven’t yet, a great place to dip your toe in is Episode 88: I Got Indian in My Family, which follows Tracy as she gets her ancestry tested from a few different companies, and it opens with this really interesting conversation she and Crissle West have about a fear that I understand, as irrational as it may be. They both discussed that, before they got their ancestry results back, they were afraid that they would find out they were majority something other than black, or not connected to anywhere in Africa. This seems like a silly irrational fear, but it stems from something that Crissle explains well—a fear that having a family that has been in America for so many generations has “warped her genetically,” and drained her blackness from her in some way. This may seem unscientific, but America has affected black people so many ways—economically, psychologically, physically—that I wondered if it could have affected my genetics. I shared their fear that maybe it had done something to the part of me that I found so beautiful in other black people, had stolen something else from me on the way.
There are other fears that black Americans often have when we start researching our ancestry—concerns about uncovering family secrets or discrepancies from the folklore that we’ve been told about ourselves. Especially in the South, these stories influence how we think about ourselves. Since I was a child, I have been told that my mother’s family was black and Choctaw, and that my father’s family was black and white. Because of the complex violence and abuse perpetrated against our people throughout history, I believe these tales of mixed ancestry to a certain extent, but I suspect that a DNA test might reveal that we are significantly less Native than some of my family members believe. Still, as a child this idea of a distant mixed heritage appealed to me. Maybe this was a result of being surrounded by the pretty mixed girls or the “1/4 Irish, 1/16th Cherokee, 2/3rd French” girls at school. Maybe this was because the majority of the black people on TV were light skinned with curls and freckles. Maybe this was because I didn’t understand the value of my own culture.
I can’t pinpoint exactly when I started to become proud of my specific black American heritage (it probably wasn’t long before this blog started), but something that helped reaffirm the value of having enslaved ancestors was episode 13 of the podcast Identity Politics, titled “Where I’m From.” Identity Politics focuses on the intersections of black womanhood and Muslim identity, and this episode took some time out to discuss the ways that being a black American effected those experiences. I took particular encouragement from hearing their guests, Bashirah and Kameelah, discuss coming to terms with the value of both their black American heritage and their more distant African ancestry. This really emphasized one of my concerns about the whole DNA testing craze (besides the question of what these companies are doing with your DNA after they test it, I’m just saying). I worried that learning about my distant history would make me devalue the heritage I do know about. There is no knowledge of a distant ancestor that will change the story of how my family came to this country, and there is no reason for me to be ashamed of that history. My ancestors’ ability to survive is something that comforts me when I’m discouraged, and their culture is just as vast and deep and any other. It took me a while to realize that the way my family makes oxtails and okra doesn’t make us a better type of black than any other black people. Though we all still have room to grow on the tensions between Africans and Black Americans, I’ve begun to find value in the customs that I had that differentiated me from other types of black people. Dishes like Hoppin’ John and holidays like Juneteenth are specific to my experience and a sign of my cultural heritage.
I may never get my DNA ancestry report, but there are still things I know about my heritage. Just as slavery shaped the South economically, culinarily, culturally, it shaped the people who were born and brought here, lived and died here, the people who passed on their stories as enslavers and the enslaved. There is nothing shameful about the beautiful of reclaiming the land my ancestors once toiled over. There is nothing simple about being “just black.”