Tonight's show focused on even earlier histories and the points at which family trees broke off, which led Gates to suggest the use of genetic testing to go even further back. One way of looking at genetic testing is to read it as a kind of genetic essentialism--if you can trace your ancestry back, through scientific markers (via the mitochondrial DNA, and for men by the markers on the Y chromosome), you might begin to believe that it confirms that you're one race or another, or one national identity or another, or something of this sort, when the truth is that races, ethnicities, nations, and so on, are historically mediated sociopolitical, socioeconomic and sociocultural constructions. Race historically has not always depended upon the markers we usually attribute to it: skin color, hair texture, familial ties and ancestry, blood quantum, etc.; sometimes it has been profoundly economic, or politically and socially contextual. The concept of "race" changes all the time, depending upon political, social, economic and cultural contexts, with different groups have shifting among racial categories and differently "raced" performativities.
Yet race does exist as a lived and living experience, as an ontological reality (as I once asked Walter Benn Michaels after a talk at Columbia in which he suggested we give up the idea of race, Are you willing to forgo your racial identity as a White man right now?), based on those very same political, social, economic and cultural contexts, and there are commonalities, in terms of biological ancestry and heritage, that we share, often to degrees that we cannot fully recognize or reckon. So another way of thinking about genetic testing is, I think, in terms of tracing out those ancestral threads, without making the leap to say that they confirm or authenticate one's racial identifications, raced subjectivity, and so on. Conversely, it can undermine our undestanding of race and racial identity if we take an essentialist approach, but I'll say more about this a little later.
Anyways, the first hour dealt primarily with Gates's and his participants' attempts to go even further back in their family trees. There were some fascinating discoveries. One of Quincy Jones's forebears on his mother's side was a member of the Lanier family, which owned five plantations and 180 enslaved people in Mississippi. (This same family, which has branches in Louisiana as well, also produced Thomas Lanier Williams, I believe, also known as Tennessee Williams.) It so turned out that his particular ancestor lived on the estate that was in the line of fire during the Civil War siege of Vicksburg (one of my favorite battles in that war, in which the Union Navy under Admiral David Farragut proved its mettle and broke the Confederacy in two), so the house was shelled, and Union troops arrested his great-great-great White grandfather as a spy, with this man's wife (because Quincy's female forebear with this man was a Black bondswoman) writing down her anguished commentary about the Union soldiers for posterity (and this show).
Several of the participants learned that they were descended from Black Union Army soldiers; there were 200,000 Blacks who served in the Union Army in various capacities (there was no mention of Black Confederate troops or their descendants), and their descendants are spread out across the country. Sarah Lawrence-Lightfoot and Gates both could trace an ancestor to Union service. Gates in fact learned that yet another ancestor, a free Black person, had moved from New Jersey to Hardy County, Virginia (now West Virginia) in the 1810s; he was curious about this, and learned from one of the historians that in fact, Hardy County had a small but thriving Black community, as was the case in pockets throughout the slaveholding South, though a historian made clear that this was freedom up to a certain point; it was precarious and contingent, always subject to the whims of the White majority (or in the case of South Carolina and Mississippi, minority) population, the elites, politics and economics. Watching this history revisited and considering the tenuousness of life for most our history gave me even more appreciation for my ancestors, our ancestors, and the extraordinary fact that they were able to accomplish beyond mere survival. Gates was actually able to go even further back, learning that he had ancestors, the Redmans, living in the early post-colonial (1770s-1790s) period. There his trail broke off. For many of the others, it broke off at various points during the late slavery era (1840s-1863/1866).
The second hour broached something I'd talked about before, which is the tension between folk histories and the "truths" genetic testing appears to offer. All of the participants submitted to genetic testing, which consisted primarily of three procedures:
- Admixture test, which breaks down the percentage of DNA in broad geographic-anthropological categories (African, European, Native American, East Asian)
- Mitochondrial DNA test, which traces chromosomes inherited directly along the matrilineal line
- Y-chromosome test, which traces a chromosomal marker inherited directly along the patrilineal line
Before the participants got their admixture test, Gates sat in on a classroom with a White professor who discussed the concept of race and the test. What he showed was that his own profile turned out 86% European, 11% African, and 4% Native American. Gates then asked him if this meant that 1 out of 10 ancestors was probably Black, and the professor said yes; yet he was a White man. (Thus torpedoing the one-drop rule.) When Gates asked him if he'd told his mother, the White man replied that yes, he had, and she'd told him not to broadcast this fact. (Of history and ancestry).
Unsurprisingly, the admixture test showed that all of the participants had sub-Saharan African ancestry. Yet it showed that all also had other non-sub-Saharan African ancestry. For six of them, the African ancestry breakdown was above 70%. One of the fascinating moments came when Oprah told Gates that she didn't think she had any European ancestry. And she was right. She was the only one of the participants not to. But, she, like all the others, said she thought she had Native American ancestry, which in fact many (most?) African-Americans I've come across in life claim. As it turned out, she was also right--but the only other person who also had Native American DNA markers was Chris Tucker. All the others' vivid and enduring family lore did not match with the scientific results. As it turned out, the profiles that I was able to jot down looked like this:
- Oprah: 89% Sub-Saharan, 8% Native American, 3% East Asian (which basically means than 9 out of 10 ancestors were Africans, about 1 out of ten was Native American, and somewhere East Asian ancestry, which could also be Native American, or Chinese laborers who worked in the South, entered her ancestral family tree)
- Mae Jemison: 79% sub-Saharan African, 13% East Asian, 8% European,
- Chris Tucker: 83% sub-Saharan African, 10% Native American, 7% European
- Whoopi: 92% sub-Saharan African, 8% European
Of course this doesn't mean that Chris Tucker is 83% African, or 83% African American and 27% something else; it only means that his genetic admixture broke down according to these broad categories.
For three of the participants, however, the European percentage was a lot higher. In Jones's case, it was 34%, in Lawrence-Lightfoot's 45%, and Gates himself learned that his admixture came out 50% African and 50% European, which not only shocked him, but basically meant that about half his ancestors could trace their ancestry to Europe, the other 50 to sub-Saharan Africa. This occasioned some quips from him ("Do I still qualify for affirmative action?" was one of them) but it also was provocative in that it undermined any strict biologistic correlation to racial identity or racial essentialism, at least in his case. In fact, it sort of proved that race as we live it cannot be pinned to genetic markers and ancestral histories. Gates is a Black person (as is Lawrence-Lightfoot, or Jones, or any of the others) and lives as one, and would be one in Europe (especially these days), despite what his admixture test says. So ultimately what sort of meanings can be ascribed to the findings?
Then, in order to address the issue of a lack of precise records and information about their African ancestors (no one was too pressed about their European ancestors, at least on camera), and for the sake of good drama, they took the mitochondrial and Y-chromosomal tests, to see if they could find matches that would pinpoint on their maternal and paternal lines where in Africa their ancestors came from. I have to admit that this part surprised me quite a bit, because I had thought the tests would point to DNA matches with people living in what are now the nations of Ghana, Senegal, Guinea, Togo, Ivory Coast, and Benin, as well as Nigeria and the Congo region, which are the main places that tend to come up in histories of slavery. But, the tests, at least of this sample of African Americans, offered a different geneological narrative. One of the things I learned was that 1 in 4 of all African slaves who reached the United States were from the Congo Basin-Angola area; I had no idea the number was so high, even though there are traces of Congolese-area Bantu cultural retentions throughout the US South (and popular place names like Congo Square, etc.). But this also links many African-Americans ancestrally to Blacks throughout the Americas, as there are strong Congo ancestral and cultural imprints in Brazil, Cuba, Haiti, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, and so on, and even among the Blacks in Mexico. The other thing I hadn't realized was that in terms of the Y-chromosome, 3 out of 10 African-American males have a direct paternal lineage to Europe, and not Africa (or to Native American), though given the history of slavery, this was less surprising.
In the cases of the participants, the results sometimes showed multiple nodes in different areas of West and South-Central and Southern Africa, with greater concentrations in some areas than others. Oprah was convinced that she had Zulu ancestors, but it turned out not to be. What was traceable, with the help of two Boston University historians of the slave trade and era who were able to explain the routes of importation, came out to:
- Oprah: matrineally--Kpelle of the interior of what's now Liberia (but also Guinea, Ivory Coast, as well as Bantus in Cameroon and Zambia)--I kept waiting for her to say she was heading there--Dr. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, you may want to drop Cousin Winfrey a line about this!
- T. D. Jakes: patrilineally--Ibo-Nigeria (and he mentioned that his Nigerian friends had already told him this just by looking at him)
- Ben Carson: matrilineally--Lunda-Congo/Angola
- Whoopi: matrilineally--Papel-Bayot-Guinea-Bissau
- Sarah Lawrence-Lightfoot: matrilineally--Mandingo & another group-Guinea-Bissau
- Quincy Jones--patrilineally--Tikar-Cameroon (who're known for their musical and artistic gifts, no less)
Chris Tucker had one of the most interesting stories: he had a 100% match with the Mbundu people in Angola. (Cf. above about the Congo-basin-Angola links.) So Gates and he flew there, and actually met with the head of the country's slave museum, who recounted how many of slaves passed through the port, how they were baptized and then rebound, how many of them did everything they could not to be shipped across the ocean. Next, they visited a woman who oversaw the voluminous slaving records the Portuguese kept. (She also looked like she could easily have mistaken for a native Black Chicagoan.) She told him that around the time that his ancestor would have been enslaved, a Queen Victoria in an interior region of Angola, Matomba (?), had resisted valiantly against Portuguese colonization, but when her army was finally defeated, the Portuguese shipped as many of the people out of that area as possible. They would have had to walk a month, bound and chained, to the seacoast at Luanda. (At this point I said to myself, once again, how did they do it? How did they survive?) So naturally, Gates took Tucker to this region of Angola, which had hundreds of years later fiercely resisted the government, and had been badly bombed. (There were still signs of the bombing of the provincial capital, Malanje.) They then went into the interior of this region, and met with a village elder, who told of how relatives had been taken away...and you know where this is heading. They received their cousin (at least as confirmed biologically, though there was no proof that it had been this village or one that had stood in its spot, but statistically he was in the right place) and welcomed him home. Tucker looked almost stunned by the ceremony, the warmth and sincerity of the performance, then very moved; his frequent silliness gave way to real amazement and awe. It got me very verklempt (I know, these narratives of return are always at base fictions, but still!). Now of course he'll have many more--hundreds?--little cousins to put through school!
And then there was Professor Gates. Poor thing, on both lines, his unbroken lineage markers went directly back to...Northern Europe! There was only one little dot in Africa, on the very northern tip of Egypt near the Nile, but most of the people sharing his matrilineal DNA were located in England and the Netherlands (the result, very likely, of a White female indentured servant at some point in early America), and those sharing his Y chromosomal markers were all over northern Europe, but from Amsterdam west to Austria. (I may have these reversed, but in either case, it was almost all Europe, to his dismay.) He admitted to being envious of Tucker and of not having a directly traceable link to Africa as everyone else, and joked with his students about being "Professor Blackman." He'd said that when he was in Africa, people told him they thought he was Sudanese. So a geneticist at Cambridge ran another very new test, that took the 50% admixture from Africa, and tried to match it up to DNA-mapped groups in the database. And lo and behold, it turns out that Gates learned that the closest match was with people who were Mende (as in the Sowei: women's society mask at left, Bayley Museum, 1981), with Yoruba correlations also being fairly close, of Sierra Leone. (And where had the Mende originally migrated from? Sudan, I found online!) So he declared, though not with any great enthusiasm, that he was Mende--which is of course what he'd originally suggested one might be careful about doing, but hey, a brotha can get caught up in the moment. (I also thought of how Robert Farris-Thompson talks about the Mende retentions in African-American art, such as quilting, in Flash in the Spirit).
All in all it was fascinating, and I'm glad I caught it. Some may argue about Gates's tics (like the constant use of the world "Negro") and self-interest, and yes, it might have been interesting had he focused not only on our richest and brightest but on a parallel sample of Black Americans from Boston to Seattle, Charleston to Los Angeles, but I find the man charming and he hosted and produced one of the more compelling programs I've watched on TV in a while (that wasn't on HBO). He made sure to turn the camera on the others, and to question easy assumptions about race, ethnicity and ancestry, even if some of the participants adhered to them. It also made me wonder about taking one of the genetic tests; I'd considered it before when Howard University was seeking participants, but then I resisted, in part out of worry that the government might get ahold of it (as if they wouldn't anyways). But now I've thought about considering it again, just to see how certain family stories bear out, as well as observations by others. One thing I wonder is, how would I respond if the admixture test came back at any less than 60-70% African? It wouldn't make me feel any less Black, which to me is a primary and lifelong identification, but I think it would still make me feel...strange. Because what does it really say? These are your ancestors, but they're not who you thought they were? They don't fit the stories you've always been told, or that you've created for yourself? And while I'm pretty sure that the mitochondrial link would go back to Africa, I'm not so sure about the patrilineal one. How would that color things?