Every holiday season, I get the urge to gift myself an ancestry test for Christmas. But every year, I talk myself out of it. I’m afraid of what the test won’t tell me.
You see, I am the child of my father, a Southern man who practices Ifa, a traditional West African religion. Ifa venerates ancestors, and for him, understanding our family tree was an important part of deepening his faith. He gathered the names of grandparents, great-grandparents, and great-great-grandparents and absorbed stories from family legend. His father’s side, the lore goes, included Cuban revolutionary Antonio Maceo, who was instrumental in bringing about that country’s freedom from Spain. His family tree is said to branch from Ethiopia to West Africa and includes enslaved people who sprouted in the South after being uprooted from the African continent, their previous connections and stories severed by slavery.
The stories that make up this verbal DNA have been told so often, I take them as truth, if not as fact. A DNA test threatens the verisimilitude of these stories about who our family has been. It also threatens the agency that my ancestors exercised by authoring their own stories of how our family got to the Americas and how we have survived until now.
Perhaps these stories have been so dear to me because, like my father, I feel a connection to my ancestors. At times, I feel them rooting for me, urging me on, wrapping me in their strength. Am I imagining this connection? Perhaps. But imagination and stories are all I have.
I thought of this during my first trip to England when I was 20 years old. I was in college for a summer abroad program in Oxford and delighted in every ancient thing I saw. I stayed in Oxford’s New College, so called because it was new in the 1300s when it was founded. Travelling throughout the country, I couldn’t help but remember that the history of humanity is long, and we are but a speck in this history. As some of my classmates rode through the countryside one day, someone marveled at the thatch-roofed houses. Our tour guide pointed at one and noted that it was built in the 1500s. “That house is older than our country,” said one of my classmates in awe.
On this trip, we went to the British Museum, a depository for many of the world’s ancient, pilfered artifacts. There, I saw a centuries-old painting from India that featured beautiful dancers poised in their craft. They reminded me of a Desi friend from college who performed classical Indian dance. Looking at the painting on the wall, I recognized some of the same postures I’d seen her perform and I marveled that she could trace her craft to the women in the picture, who lived hundreds of years before her birth.
At the same time, I felt a sinking sadness as I lamented my own lack of a similar, traceable connection to generations of yore. A DNA test could perhaps tell me from which areas of Africa my people were likely to have lived. But could it tell me their tribes? Could it tell me the dances and music my ancestors made? Could it tell me their family names and professions, or the gods they worshipped?
No. Colonialism and slavery marred and mangled the family trees of African Americans. We don’t have Oktoberfest or St. Patrick’s Day like German Americans and Irish Americans. We can’t research our family crests and tartans and glean information about our forbears by deciphering the etymology of our last names. We can’t step on the soil of a foreign country and know with certainty that this very spot is where our ancestors stood. And if we could approximate that spot, we would land there in a moment tinged with sadness and fury as we remembered how our ancestors were stolen and ferried across the sea.
Though I had always known this intellectually, I never felt this loss on an emotional level until I stood before that Indian painting in the British Museum. Standing there, I knew that I could only trace the lines of my origin so far. I would likely never know the history that preceded my ancestors’ arrival to American shores.
I can guess at the answers. I can close my eyes and imagine them drifting mysteriously through time into my ears. But I can never know.
Christmas is approaching and I am considering that DNA test again. Maybe I’ll finally get it. Maybe I’m ready to see my blood cells all laid out in percentages, to see my ancestry mapped out in colorful blots across continents.
Maybe. Or maybe I’ll just keep telling the story of our blood the way my family has told it for years, through stories that we pass down like heirlooms, one generation to the next.