Deeply Rooted: The Complex Equation of What Makes You Black

William Bryant Miles and Jamilah Lemieux

On Memorial Day, the groundbreaking miniseries, Roots, returns to television screens in grand fashion across the A+E Networks. But those looking for LaVar Burton and Leslie Uggams will be quite surprised. The production has been completely recreated for the 21st century, and features a host of celebrated stars and newcomers alike. More importantly, the sleekly produced reboot has been updated to be more historical accurate and rich, in hopes of creating a work that will speak more profoundly to contemporary audiences. The goal here isn’t necessarily to improve upon the original — frankly, I'm not sure that is possible. Instead, it is about making more people aware of not only Alex Haley’s seminal work, but also themselves. After all, the transatlantic slave trade is the story of America. Try as the mainstream may, the very fabric of this country was stitched and dyed with the blood of the millions of Africans brought here against their will.

After centuries of oppression, forced rape and willing interracial relationships, African Americans are a people with a history that is not always clear of specific. Skewed history books and shoddy record keeping tell but a fraction of the story, however modern science may be able to lend a hand through DNA testing. I was given the opportunity, along with EBONY Magazine Senior Editor Jamilah Lemieux to learn more about my genealogical identity with the support of A+E Networks and 23 and Me. We would then review the results of the tests at Jamilah's Brooklyn home, where we also discussed the nuances of identity and what these percentages do (or don't) mean.  Here’s how it unfolded.

WBM: Before we review the results, let’s start with this: what does identity mean to you?

JL: Identity is very personal…identity is political. My identity is what is and it is what it’s gonna be. And I don’t think that any information will change that profoundly…I [already] know that I am a Black woman, and a Black woman who has mixed some heritage, like most African Americans.

WBM: So you identify as “African-American?"

JL: I identify as African American. I identify as Black. Black is something I share with other descendants of Africa, African-American is something I share with other Black descendants of America and both of those identities are of equal importance to me.

WBM: I prefer Black American, which inherently includes African ancestry, but is rooted in a truly American identity. Black American pays homage to Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, the slaves, who I think are descendants of, but distinct from, continental Africans. I view Africa as my grandmother, America as my mother, albeit she is an abusive one…Before we know exactly “what” you are, let’s explore what’s true now. What has been passed down to you, culturally?

JL: I think that the language that we use is a ritual, that my [maternal] grandmother was called "Big Mama" is a ritual, that my daughter calls my father "Baba" and my mother "Mama" is a ritual. There are common African-American rituals that are a part of my experience. If I ever get married some day I would like to jump the broom.

WBM: You know that jumping the broom is featured in the new ROOTS. However Kunta Kinte does not respond so well to it, as it is not an African tradition, but is something created by the enslaved African-Americans.

JL: That’s deep. That’s such a great metaphor for our disconnect from Africa in so many ways. Just because we adopted it here does not mean it is not a real thing.

WBM: Let’s talk about Rachel Dolezal for a second. Let’s say everything about her was still true, she was in fact still 100% white, but she was raised as Black. Would it be okay for her to identify as a Black woman?

JL: If she believed she were Black, like if she had been told “you’re Black," I would not be mad at her for continuing to feel Black. I think she would still need to be honest if asked, but I wouldn’t be bothered by how she felt. However, that isn't the case for her. She is a liar. She sued Howard University for racial discrimination as a White woman. She isn't Black and she never will be.

It is at this point Jamilah, who has impatiently waited all day to discuss these results, cannot wait any longer. Beyond ancestry, 23 And Me offers a robust analysis of traits that affect health, wellness, and genetic predisposition for a variety of diseases. We find out that she has a predisposition for lactose intolerance, but not for cheek dimples, among other things. Of course, the main event here is the racial breakdown. We look together.

Sub-Saharan African: 46.4%

European: 53.0%

East Asian & Native American: 0.3%

Middle Eastern & North African: 0.0%

South Asian: 0.0%

Unassigned: 0.3%

This is not exactly what we were expecting. Or was it? Outwardly, Jamilah may appear to many as a classically biracial woman, complete with the light skin and curly hair often associated with that idenity. Many might assume one of her parents Black, the other White; however, Jamilah was raised by a beautifully dark-skinned mother and a Black Panther father who, although of mixed parentage (White mother, Black father), has always identified and presented himself as Black. Blackness is unquestionably the backbone of their family identity, and the only way Jamilah sees herself. And so, there is an awkwardness in this moment of revelation. In a way it is hard for Jamilah to process this information; I’m certain her thoughts are more complex than she verbalizes.

WBM Does this change how you see yourself in anyway?

JL: No.

WBM: Does this impact what you will teach your daughter about who she is?

JL: No.

WM: What will you teach her?

JL: That she’s Black. It was never unclear to me that my father’s father would be a mixed race Black man.

WM: So the only surprise here is the volume of White? You aren’t Kenyan or Ethiopian, for example.

JL: I’m not surprised. I did not, like, expect East African, which is something people have assumed me to be many times. I got a result that I expected, but it's still a little surprising to see the European blood as the dominant one that runs in my veins. I need receipts! But in all seriousness, I know that my dad is mixed, but now I am curious to find out what was going on with my mom's side of the family and, I'm pretty certain that the mixing there comes from slavery.

WM: Do you feel connected to biracial people in any real way now?

JL: I’ve always felt slightly connected- perhaps "empathetic" is a better word-to them because I have a biracial parent and I have been mistaken for biracial. But I don't feel mixed in the slightest because I was raised by two Black parents.

Our conversation is interrupted by an email letting me know my results were also ready. I’m just a regular, schmegular Black boy from Brooklyn with two Black American parents, so I don’t have much anxiety about what I will find. I’m thinking we'll find probably a little European, a little Native American and a whole lotta Black.

Sub-Saharan African: 75.2%

European: 22.9%

East Asian & Native American: 0.8%

Middle Eastern & North African: 0.4%

South Asian: 0.3%

Unassigned: 0.5%

Well, now I’m the one that is quiet. After a bit of self-reflection, I jokingly exclaim “I’m White!” Naima, Jamilah’s three-year-old daughter, abruptly corrects me: "No! You're Black." Truth from the mouth of babes. Of course, I don’t believe myself to be White, but I am taken aback by this 22.9%. Essentially, one fourth of my ancestry is not Black. That's basically a grandparent. I wonder, have I been deceived, is what I know to be true now not? I reach out to various family members – my mother, cousins, siblings- seeking support. Reactions vary, there is some shock, some disbelief  (“I think it’s still worth revisiting our Native American heritage” said a sibling), but the overall reaction is pretty much the same: “So what?!” It’s not a dismissive remark (well maybe just a little bit), but its more a matter-of-fact recognition that nothing has fundamentally changed. We are still very much the same Black people we were in the moments before this test came back.

Jamilah and I joked about our newfound Whiteness, and the perks it might afford us: "Maybe we won’t get followed in stores, maybe we can get taxis quicker!" But the reality is clear. Jamilah put it best: “I can't show up anywhere now and collect some White privilege. I'm not going to be embraced by White folks as their sister. I'm as Black as I was when I woke up this morning, and that is quite alright with me.”

DNA testing was provided by 23 and Me.


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