DNA and the Pulsating Puzzles of Us
Twenty-plus years ago I found myself in Cameroon and West Africa visiting a super cool college friend who was in the Peace Corps. I have always been unquestionably drawn to cultural studies. In college, I took two semesters of Japanese language and African Poetry as electives just for fun. Studying different civilizations and traditions, being mixed race and incredibly curious in a smaller Wisconsin city, and having a highly creative personality type led to a Bachelor’s Degree in Art History. Totally respectable in some circles but also useless in others.
Hearing about the ancestry tests out there, I knew that one day I would dive in and start discovering more about my ancestry. I knew of my African origins but nothing more specific. As it turns out, the trip I took was even more significant than I realized, having DNA from Cameroon, the Congo, and Western Bantu Peoples and Nigeria.
There’s something magical and empowering about learning what flavor of blood flows through your veins. Like putting together the pieces of a vibrant pulsating puzzle. One of my favorite topics is exploring self-awareness and identity. I honor this new information as a gem of my life. I knew the basic foundation of my ancestry, approximately 50-50 black and white. I heard there was some Blackfoot Indian in my genes and that my Caucasion side is mostly German and English. Growing up in a smaller city in Wisconsin, my black history education and exposure was fairly limited and I was usually always the “only one”. Like most Black Americans, I assumed that my ancestry came from the slave trade and the rest was lost due to a complete destruction of African identity. The last name of my father started with a “Mc”, which doesn’t necessarily mean that I was Irish on his side, it means that the people owning my ancestors were most likely Irish. The funny thing is, it doesn’t mean that my father’s side didn’t also have some European and Native mixes, but that story is likely not from the last name they have.
From this Ancestry DNA test, I paid for the knowledge of forgotten and destroyed stories of some of my genetic makeup. I discovered that I was Nigerian, although I already had assumed I was some type of Western African. With half of my family in Mississippi, it was interesting to learn that my DNA also traced back to some early freed communities in North Carolina.
Why does this matter? The same way Irish Americans and Italian Americans pay homage to the old country and the traditions and legacies, it should matter. It’s embedded in the way they move through their lives and the world. Churches, design, food, drink, family traditions of these specific cultures make up a huge part of our generalized American identity. English-Americans, which just sounds weird because they are never hyphenated, gave us our American identity as well as several other European cultures. I know next to nothing about the culture of Nigeria and Cameroon. The rich histories of African tribes and cultures are mostly foreign to me, but I intend to learn more.
I learned of the deep roots of my European ancestry in Wisconsin, the place where I grew up and the place where I find myself again in later adulthood. Although I was fairly accomplished, I never felt like I belonged there. I always knew I would leave to more diverse cities where I could develop roots. Yet, here I am, back in Wisconsin, Milwaukee this time, but still my home state. I learned that my ancestors have some roots back to the 1700’s in Wisconsin and that Oshkosh was the hometown for the majority of them. It’s interesting to learn that a city that I never felt was fully mine, is actually a large part of my ancestral story. Although I was a minority there and dealt with racial intolerance, I belong there as much as anyone else. I still prefer larger cities with lots of cultural diversity, but it has awakened me to the fact that I am as much of a Wisconsinite as everyone else here and I can own it no matter where I end up. This also means I might need to get on the Friday Fish Fries and "up north cabin" lifestyle.
Learning about my blood line gives me pride in this unique identity. It motivates me to embrace my cultural roots, but also to know that I came into being in America. American is my identity,
and the moment that two drastically opposite histories aligned became my American story.
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