I started writing about my genealogy search at least four times. It is an exciting journey that has left me with more questions than answers and in a deeper rabbit- hole than I could ever imagine. Wendy Roth, Associate Professor of Sociology, at the University of British Columbia wrote that, “our ideas about race and ethnicity are shaped by societies and not just what is found in our genes”. While there is no discounting the way race and identity has evolved over time, it is quite different for a black person. Ancestry DNA mapping isn’t solely about the surface identity but the history behind our families. Most consumers are interested in using ancestry testing to gain, confirm, or extend knowledge about their current family genealogy.
I recently got my Ancestry DNA results and although the ethnicity estimates were not a surprise, the overwhelming number of cousins I was matched with did leave me in a fog. What is family? Who are we anyway? According to the results I am 100% Afro-Jamaican with connections to West African regions known today as Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Benin, Togo, The Republic of Congo, and The Republic of Cameroon. My specific estimates indicate that I am largely Nigerian with a whopping 46%; 22% of my DNA had markings were from Benin and Togo, 12% Cameroon, Congo, and the Western Bantu Peoples, 7% from Ghana and the Ivory Coast, and 1 % from Mali. I also managed to also have 3% originating in Northern Africa, but the other 9% is a mixture of pending [c]audacity (3% England and Northwestern Europe, 2% Spain, 1 % Ireland and 1 % Norway). Again, no surprise there because of colonization but the other side of that is a bit overwhelming. Imagine scrolling through over 3500 people who share in YOUR DNA. Plus, these are only people who have taken an Ancestry DNA kit. So, there are easily more since only two of my known cousins have taken this test and have t topped the list.
One of the biggest realizations is that the concept of “family” is warped. There is absolutely no obligation for any of them to claim me as family, nor I them. But seriously, we share DNA. The thing that makes me physically who I am is part of them. That’s some weird feeling but, also very cool. I always thought I knew all my family members until I started making a family tree. My fourth great-grandmother, Mary Miller, a mulatto woman born in 1767 in Jamaica, had eight children with Joseph Benjamin. Her fourth child Edward was my third great-grandfather. What happened to the rest of them? Did they have children? Where did they move to? I thought Edward only had one son, my second great grandfather, Matthew Benjamin, but there was an older Brother who moved to New Orleans with his wife Hannah. Most shocking is they’re Jewish. I could go on and on, but you get the picture.
I found this information from a bit of digging and connecting dots. While it was helpful, the biggest drawback was that only certain types of people’s information were recorded properly and accurately. Unless I am willing to dig deeper into slave records, I probably will never find much more about the rest. Well, at least not online. I’d love to know who Mary’s mother was and did she have other children as Mary wasn’t the only mulatto woman on my timeline. Catherine Smith, my fourth great-grandmother, born circa 1770 in Jamaica was a Quadroon: unearthing and understanding of the racial dynamics at that time, raises so many questions.
But back to the questions I posed earlier. What is family? Are we to blindly assume that we have not been robbed of direct lineage to our roots? What part of my West African ancestry do I claim my 46% or my 7%? Luckily, from what I gather about the temperament about the return to Africa is that they are welcoming no matter what tribe you might belong to. Amongst my matches was a distant cousin who is 100% Nigerian. I shared this with a friend who consulted with her Nigerian friends and my distant cousin’s name is from the lgbo tribe. One might argue that instead of causing a disruption, there should be acceptance of the variety of my makeup. Colonization created a ruckus, no doubt but that ruckus created so many incredible people. Notwithstanding, the trauma, but the innovation, survival and the extraordinary creativity and drive of our people today would make our ancestors proud.
Who are we? We are more than our genetic makeup, but it doesn’t hurt to know. Rabbit hole or not, there is something incredible about knowing the origins of my DNA. Although only forty-four of the over 3500 cousins shared their location, they are all over the world. Now maybe, we should add whatever this is to a growing list of the effects of colonization. Lost family, identity, lineage, stories, tradition but also the creation of new stories, ties, and tradition. I don’t know what will become of me and my growing ‘family’ but I’m excited to see where it takes me.