To those who grew up knowing your ethnic background and family lineage, don’t ever take that for granted. Some of us have lived a long time with no such knowledge.
In 1985, I was in my high-school French class when the white girl to my back-right whispered to me, “What are you?”. I realize now that I probably should have been offended by the question, but at fifteen years old, I took it to mean that someone was interested in the “Chinese-looking” Black girl who kept to herself and rarely spoke a word unless it was in French.
It was the first time that anyone had ever asked me directly about my background, so I was thrown. When I found my tongue again, I answered with a phrase that has haunted me ever since: “I’m just Black.”
Immediately, I felt a wave of shame overtake me, and not just because the girl quickly lost interest in a conversation with me. I was mortified that I had nothing more specific to tell her. This was high school, and my first time ever socializing with girls of other races and cultures. I was surrounded by girls who had no problem regaling each other with stories of who they were, where they came from, and what they were “mixed” with. I kept to myself because I couldn’t participate in those discussions with a story of my own. And I had no story because I did not know who–or “what”–I was.
As an adult, I was frequently complimented on my looks with words like “exotic” and “worldly”. My Asian eyes got me the attention that I wanted, so I always played them up in pictures. When asked (more politely) about my ethnic background, I would either reply “I don’t really know” or make up something that included an Asian country that I liked. I honestly do not know which one felt worse.
This is my family crest. My heritage. My family history and lineage. My ancestry.
A completely blank slate.
My life was nothing like Roots, where the diatribe of “The Old African” that started the family saga was told by one generation to the next. There were no family traditions or heirlooms to pass down. There weren’t even pleasant reminiscences of elders who had passed on. Not even close. Beyond my maternal grandmother, may she rest, I have no clue about my family tree. I have one surviving aunt, who is both hateful and demented, and a boatload of cousins who have their own family trees to work on. I’m not mad at that.
What I am mad at is that my mother’s relatives–the only ones I ever knew–spoke of elders and each other with absolute disgust. It is safe to say that my mother’s family HATED each other, so any time that I raised the question of where we come from, the answer was either “Why you want to bring all that @#$% up?” or “I don’t like discussing my past.”
For the record, I was never interested in my relatives’ pasts; I was only interested in my heritage. Because my kinfolk couldn’t understand the difference between the two, I was left empty and rootless. For decades.
Until this year.
Now that I can finally afford it, I submitted my DNA to two companies that I trust to give me satisfactory results. The teacher in me won’t rely on just one source. One of those results came back last week. I’ll spare you the comprehensive list of percentages and countries. The bottom line is this:
- 86% African, emphasizing the Central and Western French-speaking countries.
- 13% European, including Spain.
- 1% Asian, specifically Vietnamese. Shocker.
Wow! This already explains why I gravitated towards the French language and focused my research of Africa to countries in the West. I already feel my roots sinking in. Of course, I expected the Asian percentage to be larger, but I’m good with that one. I’ll have to be. I don’t feel “just Black” anymore. I can embrace my African culture with specific regions in mind. Until that second report comes in.
One down…one to go….