Lies Grandma Told Us? Defending Our Oral Histories in the Age of Ancestry Testing

I once asked my grandmother where we—our family—were from. As the matriarch of my maternal family, I figured she could give me some answers, that she could illuminate the past and help me situate myself in the history that I had been filling in as I progressed through my undergraduate Sociology degree. In retrospect, I don’t know what type of answers I expected. I surely didn’t expect the detailed family histories that my white counterparts casually rattled off, or the unique tribal affiliations of my Nigerian classmates. I certainly didn’t expect the short answer that she gave me: “We’re from Mississippi.” That was it. Mississippi. I was disappointed. At the time I wanted more. What more, I didn’t know.

Eventually, the statement grew on me. And Mississippi, already a source of pride in my identity, grew in importance. My friends and I, pulling on the state’s history as the home of the third largest slave population in the country and the state with the current highest proportion of black people, called it the Step-Motherland and joked that if you went back far enough every black person was from Mississippi.

Mississippi became enough, and I realized that there was plenty of digging to be done even among the truncated black lineages of the one state. Collecting oral histories from my parents and grandmother revealed more than enough information to “situate myself in history.” I became the descendent of sharecroppers, the great grandson of a lynched man, the great grandson of a man who had killed a white overseer and escaped, the first generation on both sides of my family not to be born—in 1988!—on the plantation. I realized that I had eaten in the restaurant of the family of the man who killed my great grandfather. And I learned just how close I had been to not growing up in Mississippi at all because my mom wanted to follow the migration trail north. I also learned that I’m one-eighth native. I’d heard grumbling about that before, but this was the first time that it had been actively confirmed for me.

It’s a familiar story in black families. Myths and hearsay about our native heritage run deep in our communities and serve as explanations for long hair, high cheekbones, fair skin, and any number of physical traits that we have been taught not to associate with blackness. It is racism at work, forcing us to desperately cling to something deep in our past, regardless of how true it may or may not be, to be more than just black. And that desire is not without merit. A study I published earlier this year in The Review of Black Political Economy suggests that black people are perceived as more attractive if they simply say that they are mixed race, regardless of how they look and whether they are actually multiracial. And the social benefits that accompany that attractiveness are enough to reach and hope for that native heritage.

But it is more than aesthetic. It offers a sense of grounding and belonging to connect to a people who seem to have more history than us, even it is just one ancestor. That part of your heritage can be explained…supposedly.

But it is all messy, like oral history tends to be. We all roll our eyes at the black girl attributing her long, chemically straightened hair to the “injun in me.” And we laugh when someone from the back of the crowd yells, “Nigga, you black!” And we search and wonder how authentic our own claims are, because we can’t all be “Cherokee,” right?

And in the digital age, where technology moves at ever increasing speeds, few questions remain unanswered for long, and now ancestry DNA testing has risen to the fore, promising to do, particularly for black Americans, what our oral Histories cannot always do: provide definitive answers to the question I asked my grandmother: Where are we from.

In neat little percentages, genetic ancestry testing claims to use DNA markers to tell its customers what continent their ancestors and sometimes even where on a specific continent their ancestors are from. Using continental populations as “scientific” proxies for race, the tests will allegedly reveal whether you’re actually 75 percent African (read: black) and 25 percent American (read: native) like your family history says or if you are, indeed, a 100 percent black, African American, Negro like everyone rolling their eyes assumes when you gush over your own high cheekbones.

The social consequences of those little percentages have already begun to blossom with some native tribes requiring that members return a certain percentage of native blood ancestry, and I can imagine a future where colleges require test results for applicants seeking minority scholarships. But the consequences for our individual identities can be just as staggering as more and more black people look to ancestry tests to confirm their family’s oral histories.

Science is supposed to be definitive and infallible, right? Unlike the memories of our grandparents, which have been made unreliable by the inevitable erosion of time, the corrupting influence of racism, and the seduction of racialized myths. What better way to correct them than with the output of a computer program designed to do exactly what we’re asking of our grandparents? And entire communities of black Americans have taken the ancestry testers up on their offer, and many of them have come back fist pounding that the tests have not revealed their desired results, demanding an explanation for their lack of native or white heritage. Others have laughed and scoffed because they always suspected that the native myths were not true. To both, I’d say the same thing: Not so damn fast.

Ignoring the well-documented problems with the science of genetic ancestry testing, we have to remember that race is not genetics or even necessarily geography, that even if the tests were as accurate as they claim they would still be unprepared to deal with the messiness of race in our oral histories and our collective history. Because we have grossly exaggerated the rigidity of race, we are quick to give these percentages precedence over human memory, but we must remind ourselves that race is fluid. It is not neat, and every family story, every myth reveals something unavailable to the genetic testers. How do the tests account for a black person who is passing but appears in the family history as white? Or a black ancestor adopted into and raised by a native community and presents as native in the family’s collective memory?

In 1880, about 20 percent of the United States black population identified as mulatto—of mixed black and white heritage—which was an official Census category for almost a century in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. At the time the Census mailers that we are all familiar with did not exist. There was no “complete and return” process for another 80 years. Instead, the Census did for everyone what the modern Census only does to those with an aversion to paperwork: send enumerators door-to-door to collect the data. The day’s common knowledge said that a person could identify a mulatto simply by looking, that it was evident in their facial features. But there was more.

In a case in 1850, a lawyer proclaimed that, “A mulatto is to be known, not solely by color, kinky hair, or slight admixture of Negro blood, or by a greater admixture of it not amounting to one-half, but by reputation, by his reception into society, and by the exercise of certain privileges.” One of those privileges was occupational prestige.

A 2013 study in Demography by sociologists Aliya Saperstein and Aaron Gullickson reveals that the mulatto category was permeable. From decade to decade, from Census to Census, people flip-flopped, moving in and out of the mulatto category based on increases or decreases in their occupational prestige. Occupational prestige likely intersected with other local markers of prominence such as admission to particular social clubs that allowed people to “exercise” the “certain privileges” necessary to gain inclusion into the coveted mulatto category.

While mulatto as an official racial category fell out of favor across the country as various forms of the infamous “one-drop” rule began to take a stranglehold on the nation’s view of race, the assumed multiraciality of those of the former mulatto group did not die when the Census killed the category. But how does history treat them? How do they present in our oral histories? When your grandmother speaks of her mulatto grandfather, does that not still carry the assumption of mixed racial heritage? But what if your great-great-grandfather was one of those new mulattos on the come up after acquiring a new job and perhaps had no white parent? What happens when an ancestry test reveals your family’s lack of “European” heritage? Was your ancestor not “really” mulatto even though he, and his descendants, enjoyed the benefits of his status as such? (How) does the ancestry test trump your oral history?

Our oral histories are flawed. They’re fallible. They’re messy. They’re full of myths, legends, and questions, and sometimes, even outright lies. But oral histories tell tales of our racial history as it was lived and perceived, both by family and by the family’s contemporaries. Grandma’s recollection of events is not perfect, and that old Bible with the family tree undoubtedly has some branches missing. There are holes. Sometimes there are holes that we can’t fill. And in many ways the holes tell as much of a story as the people we know of; the holes tell of a people who have suffered loss and tragedy. That is our burden to bear and our history to mourn, our ancestors who have gone missing from our collective memory, faceless, nameless, and lost to history, unremembered, yet not forgotten. And genetic testing cannot uncover them. It can’t rubber stamp our histories and validate our identities. We have to be strong enough to resist the call to reify our racial identities through genetic testing and embrace our history as it is told to us in all of its messy, holey, mythical, uncertainty.

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