We Are Not All Orphans
I’m at a conference where I have to state my argument in three sentences to the person sitting across from me. She and I have never met, but we are both part of a group that teaches women and people of color how to pitch their writing so it can enter the public conversation.
“Culturally, we are moving away from the bootstrap narrative of upwardly mobile individualism,” I say, “toward a story shape that is more collective and communal. And this shift is being helped by our evolving understanding of DNA and ancestry.”
She looks at me skeptically. “I’m suspicious of anything that suggests an ‘American consciousness’,” she says. “Who do you mean by we?”
“Good point,” I say. “As of this year, five million people are on Ancestry.com and two million are on 23 and Me. These DNA tests reveal that old racial categories are false, that we share DNA with all humans of all skin tones, and that most of us are mixed. And the crowd-sourced genealogical tools that correspond with these DNA tests are helping us to personalize history. This personalization of the past can then help us to grapple with injustice.”
“But I just did Ancestry.com,” she says, “and all it did for me was confirm my own whiteness. It was all European heritage. You know, lots of people, like my parents, are doing it just to prove their own elite pedigree. Besides, the whole process just abstracted me from the communities I’m invested in here and now.”
“So you think this is all just some kind of fantasy?” I ask. “Just another one of our country’s imaginative products?”
To consider oneself an American is to live inside a story of what that means. Some of our country’s most persuasive exports have been our imaginative products, our stories—from the tracts in 17th century England calling for indentured servants, to the muckraking novels of the 19th century, to movies, television and the polyphonic story that is social media (a natural outgrowth of reality TV, which privileged the stories of flawed and ordinary individuals). Probably the most popular, recurrent American story-shape is the materialistic bildungsroman about an individual overcoming tough odds, surviving hardship and gaining wealth or fame. These stories have had great currency because they have served as aspirational mirrors of what we want to become. But, my interrogator is right—who is this “us” I am speaking of?
The privilege of being seen as an individual, and therefore as this archetypal “American” has been allotted primarily to white people. To be seen as black or Latinx, Asian or Native American is to be defined not as an individual, but as part of a group. It is to suffer the erosions of specificity, dignity and respect that such generalizations create. The story of whiteness has always been a story about individuality, based on the lie that one earns his success alone. This denial obscures the privileges and networks behind such success, and foundationally hides the fact that the country’s economic prosperity was secured through the seizure of land from indigenous people and the enslavement of Africans and their descendants. This story of American exploitation has always been buried under the story of American opportunity, and the American story of individual success has had to grow more and more mythical, in proportion to the denials that underwrite it.
To be seen as an individual is everyone’s birthright, because it carries the respect and autonomy necessary for full citizenship and participation in life. And yet to be seen only, or even primarily, as an individual, is also a loss, a denial of the communities that make us. It hides the fuller story of being one among others, one in a family and community, one who is the result of countless ones before.
My colleague’s skepticism was helpful. Somehow, I had not equated the current popular interest in DNA and ancestry to that older interest in genealogical pedigree, a way of claiming privilege and prestige. My thesis was simply that the interest in ancestry popularized by the mass marketed DNA test kits sold by 23 and Me and Ancestry.com, and shows like the PBS Series American Roots, is inviting people to personalize history. By getting insights into the stories of our ancestors, we begin to animate the past, and grapple with its challenges.
But my colleague invited me to ponder whether this was all a grand distraction, a way for people to absolve themselves of dealing with the country’s current challenges, and to extract a narrative from the past that was, in the end, only self-serving. What is lost, in other words, when we read the past not as a way to understand systems of power and change, but primarily as a way to understand ourselves?
In April, 2019, the most popular DNA test site, Ancestry.com, aired an ad called “Inseparable.” The ad opens on the back of a young black woman in an antebellum dress, running to meet a white man under a staircase. He holds out a ring to her. “Abigail,” he says desperately, “we can escape, to the North. There’s a place we can be together, across the river. Will you leave with me?”
Allegedly based on a true story unearthed by an Ancestry user, the ad was shockingly insensitive in its romanticizing of the antebellum south, and its failure to acknowledge the fact that most women in this time and place were conceiving mixed race children not through romantic elopement with a white savior, but through sexual assault, coercion and violence from a white “master.” The National Geographic’s Genographic Project, Ancestry.com and 23andme.com all compute that the average African American person has 20-30 percent European ancestry. This is a painful fact for many African Americans to confront, because it involves imagining the sexual coercion of their female ancestors and knowing that they carry biological evidence of slavery’s sexual violence in their own bodies.
In a Twitter feed critiquing the Ancestry ad, geneticist Janina M. Jeff wrote, “@Ancestry has yet to consider the re-victimization of Black and Brown folks from getting their ancestry results and the fact that having European ancestry which is a clear reminder of slavery and can be traumatic. The idea that a Black woman might be reminded of the rape of her ancestors still present in her DNA through her European ancestry is never addressed by these companies or even a thought because no one who makes these decisions really understand the impact of this trauma.”
“Without you, the story stops here,” the ad ends. Then a chipper voiceover says, “Uncover the lost chapters of your family history with Ancestry.”
This is what happens when history meets marketing, I think. This is what happens when family history becomes a fairy tale.
My family went to Disney World for all of our family milestones. I was raised on Disney’s pop culture fairy tales more than I was raised on bible stories or Greek myths. They were a kind of bible for us as children, a touchstone of operative metaphors and messages that shaped us subconsciously. Snow White was the highest grossing film of 1938, Frozen was the highest grossing animated film of 2013, and Disney’s command of audience barely wavered in eight decades between those releases, with billions of children and adults absorbing their narratives every year.
In most of these stories, the princess’s main goal is to find her prince, and to do so, she has to leave behind her family and everything she has known. Cinderella represents the archetype of upward mobility through marriage. Snow White finds safety though kindness, but even she has to leave the little people and go to the palace in the end. By the time we get to the late eighties, the Little Mermaid’s stated (or sung) goal is simply materialism. Her hopes of upward mobility are no longer even disguised in virtue or humility. Ariel wants to enter the above-water world so she can have nice things. And while Belle, of Beauty and the Beast, likes to read, she still finds her deepest affinity with the teacup, teapot and candlesticks that dance and sing with her. That is, her best friends are objects.
In each story, an imperiled female has to leave her family and become an upwardly mobile orphan. The cure for orphanhood arrives through hetero-sexual love, male protection, and material wealth. These are foundationally white, American stories that end with happy consumerism. They hold the same general shape that the story of whiteness has historically maintained in this country: the idea that I am destined to be royalty, even though I labor, even though I live in the woods with the little people. I may be underwater right now, but someday I will have the latest gadgets. With hard work, kindness, beauty, and the protection of a white male, I too can get the keys to the castle.
Walt Disney began his career in animation by reading Aesop’s Fables and adapting them as modernized fairy tales. He understood human’s primal need for stories, and his company’s success was due in part to its ability to tap into myth in every generation—that place where the story is both instructive and reflective of the culture’s subconscious. The psychologist Carl Jung, who was a contemporary of Disney, called this mirroring act the “the social significance of art.”
“Art is constantly at work educating the spirit of the age,” Jung wrote, “conjuring up the forms in which it is most lacking. The unsatisfied yearning of the artist reaches back to the primordial image in the unconscious which is best fitted to compensate the inadequacy and one-sidedness of the present.”
Readers may quibble with the designation of Disney movies as art, but no one can argue with their popularity, the fact that their stories and songs have animated archetypes and struck resounding chords through several generations of Americans. It is not surprising to me that for years these animated stories featured upwardly mobile orphans. We were, after all, a nation of upwardly mobile immigrants, as for generations, new Americans said goodbye to their homelands, parents and relatives, never to see them again, assimilating into white Americanness as a way to curry safety, favor and prosperity. Today, greater connectivity allows people keep in touch with their relatives, even after they migrate. And as the U.S. continues to diversify through migration and mixing, so too does the market. In recent years, the biggest attendance increase at the box office has been among younger African American and Asian American audiences. Disney, the corporation, knows this, and is rewriting its myths accordingly, in part by changing the demographics of the authors and characters in its stories.
The shift began with the wildly popular movie, Frozen—which depicted slightly more nuanced notions of good and evil within a tale of courageous sisterhood. This movie was the first such animated feature to be directed by a woman and the first popular princess story to depict females in cooperation rather than in competition with one another. But even Elsa and Anna were girls without parents, princesses without ancestors.
The 2016 Disney feature, Moana, further diversified and empowered the female princess. Moana is a feisty Polynesian girl-chief who reconnects with her ancestors’ seafaring skills and saves her island. This storyline is similar to the 2019 Disney-Pixar film Coco, which won that year’s Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. Coco tells the story of Miguel, a Mexican boy who travels to the land of the dead to meet his great-great grandfather, who helps him heal a familial misunderstanding and embrace his own talents. Miguel and Moana are each compelling, individual protagonists who grapple with the limitations and misunderstandings of their families. But ultimately, they do not lose or abandon their families, like earlier princesses, but transform them. And they don’t facilitate this transformation through wealth, as did Cinderella and Belle, but through a renewed connection to their ancestors and their inherited talents. Their powers do not come from fairy godmothers, or supernatural sources in the sky, in other words, but from their own ancestral wellsprings.
The 2018 Disney/Marvel release, Black Panther, addressed ideas of ancestry and inheritance even more directly. Black Panther made an unprecedented $1.3 billion and was the highest grossing film of 2018 and the highest grossing super hero movie of all time. Its popularity spoke to a longing for black characters in strong and varied roles, and also to a longing for ancestral connection to Africa as a continent of sovereign nations unravaged by colonialism and the slave trade. In fact, several times in the film, protagonists clearly name the ills of colonialism and individualism—ideas, that, until fairly recently, have gone unquestioned in popular culture as pillars of American ideology.
The 2019 release of Frozen 2 also participated in this mass cultural revision, albeit a little behind the beat. In this sequel, the girls are told that, long ago, their grandfather, the king, gave a dam to the indigenous people as a gift. In the course of the movie, they learn that the “gift” was actually a trick to murder the people of the forest and take their land. Furthermore, the mysterious spirit that rescued their father was actually their mother, an indigenous woman who hid her ancestry and dared to love the colonizing enemy. Righting this error in history involves wrecking the damn, and risking flooding the colonial capital of Arundel itself. Thus, this story enacts a grappling with history, upending the claims of goodness and generosity that have long been attributed to the dominant nation and its savior narratives.
As works of entertainment, these films are responsive to movements and markets of the moment, but as imaginative products, they draw their fuel from an older symbology, from images and archetypes that suggest an unlocking of supernatural powers, and that tap into myth, as it both reflects and instructs a culture’s shared story. Some may argue that these movies are not radical, mythical works, but market creations, storylines that nod to underrepresented cultures as a way of appealing to untapped buyers. This is true, but these films are also widely popular, deeply felt and ingested, and therefore powerful conveyors of meaning. And, notably, they all present a framework of meaning that upends the white, Western notion of individualism. In these stories, heroes and heroines must balance their needs to be adventuring individuals with their responsibilities to family and ancestors. They are not all orphans, and their hero’s task is not to leave their families and enter the castle. The ancestors, in turn, offer healing and instruction in a living cycle of kinship. It is this kinship that is being imagined as a superpower now, rather than a more abstracted, vertical notion of magic, which was itself a response to—and maybe a subversion of—the Judeao-Christian story-shape.
The kinship tale was, until recently, a vibrant but marginalized way of telling a story. It was the way preserved through oral cultures that recalled humans’ first reasons for sharing stories—to remember lineages and safeguard ritual, to pass on memories and teachings from one generation to the next, and in turn, to create a living network of meaning. Kinship tales were the stories told around fires, in churches, on porches, in quilting circles, and in performance poetry. They were stories told as a form as cultural preservation, and they have long been essential to communities of color and other marginalized peoples. Kinship narratives are most essential and vibrant wherever kinship has been forcibly threatened—through genocide, forced migration, displacement or kidnapping, as happened in the slave trade. Kinship stories provide a kind of living mythology, as they both remember history and instruct the present moment.
Because of these deep resonances, it was a little shocking to see the movie industry’s shock at Black Panther’s resounding success, that $1.3 billion dollars that exceeded all market predictions. These films appeal to “new” markets of diverse viewers who have been here all along. They also present story shapes that are older than the “leaving home” narrative of white America. In these stories, families occupy longer stretches of time than just the living present, and ancestors participate in their kin’s history and future. This, almost as much as the names, ethnicities and skin tones of the heroes and heroines, represents a major departure from the dominant narratives of upward mobility. They depict ancestry not as acquisition but as connection, not as object but as relationship. This is ancestry as a verb rather than a noun, a living source of instruction, rather than a portrait on the wall.
In 2017, Ancestry.com created an ad that explores the genealogical history of the directors of Coco. It begins with co-director Adrian Molina talking about the film. “We all wonder about our ancestors,” Molina says. “But what’s so fun about this story is that Miguel has the opportunity to actually meet his ancestors.”
Co-director Lee Unkrich adds, “If we don’t pass stories along, there comes a point that people can be forgotten and lost to time. That’s an idea that we wanted to explore in Coco.”
But it is one thing to watch paid ads for Ancestry.com, and another to watch people’s actual, real-time reactions to learning their ancestry. In the last few years, millions of “DNA Reveal” videos have gone up on YouTube, in which people open their ancestry results live and share their reaction with a viewing audience. (A Google search for “DNA Reveal” videos as of today yields 24,300,000 results.) Some people cry, some laugh, some whoop and cheer when they get their DNA results. Most seem to experience this information as something genuinely meaningful.
“I was so nervous. . .why?” flashes across the screen at the beginning of Wendy Fenelus’s “DNA Reveal” video, which is the first one I viewed, due to some randomizing algorithm of YouTube.
“I think if you have an opportunity to do this, you should,” she says, addressing the viewer. She is a beautiful, earnest young black woman in glasses and an orange printed blouse. “We all come from somewhere. We all have history somewhere. . .Not one person is just one race. Somewhere in your background, someone mixed. So if someone is racist, it’s kind of stupid.”
“No not kind of stupid,” she corrects herself. “When people are racist, it is really ignorant, because we are all mixed in some way.”
Fenelus opens her email, reads her pie chart and learns that she is 90 percent African, from areas of Nigeria, Ivory Coast and Ghana, and 10 percent European. “Okay,” she says to that last part, a carefully measured acceptance in her voice, as she takes in what this mixing likely means. Then she returns to her address of the viewer, “I love that skin color does not determine your race. It really should not determine your worth. But unfortunately, in the world we live in, people look at skin color, hair, the family you come from. . .. But guess what? That doesn’t determine your worth. Your worth comes from your creator.”
“Don’t get into the trap of looking for your worth in this world, because this world is very fluid,” she says. “It comes and goes, and things that were important back then are not important now. But you, you are priceless.” She smiles warmly at the camera, taking her time with the next two sentences, which subverts the language of the market—the very market that enslaved and exploited her ancestors—to convey the soul, the timeless human wholeness that cannot be quantified, bought or sold.
“You are priceless. You will remain. Priceless.”
The next video that pops up on my screen is the DNA reveal video of children’s book author, Patrice McLarin. She has sent her results to AfricanAncestry.com, which like Ancestry.com uses a swab from the cheek to read DNA and look for possible matches. But unlike Ancestry.com, which looks at nuclear DNA, African Ancestry examines mitochondrial DNA to trace matrilineal ancestry back to African nations. Rather than providing the user with an email with pie charts and delineated percentages like Ancestry.com, it sends a certificate of ancestry that verifies maternal ancestry of specific tribes, and in some cases, includes t-shirts, jewelry and artwork made by the living members of those lineages.
“I am excited!” McLarin begins. ‘Today is the day that I finally get to satiate this deep and abiding yearning that has been with me for at least a decade. I have always wanted to know from whence my ancestors came. And today, thanks to AfricanAncestry.com, I get to find out.”
“I am about to discover, where the mothers of my tribe hail from. Yes, your girl is excited!” she says.
“Okay, let’s make this official.” She slips the certificate out of the envelope and reads it. “African Ancestry hereby certifies that Patrice McLarin shares maternal ancestry with the Bamileke People living in Cameroon.” She cheers, then laughs a full-throated laugh.
“Thank you, African Ancestry. I appreciate you,” she says, blowing kisses at the camera.
The next video that pops up on my screen is by a young white married couple with the handle of @tellthebirds. Their video is much longer than the others, and does not delve into the meaning of ancestry or their anticipation about results, but concentrates instead on the objects in the Ancestry.com DNA kit.
“Here’s the handy tube,” the husband says. They both hold up the tube several times, explaining that they are going to do a cheek swap and spit in the tube. Then they get into an argument about the amount of spit the tube is designed to hold.
“That’s a quarter teaspoon.”
“No, that’s like four tablespoons!”
“This is so gross!”
“Your spit is all bubs.”
“Hey Siri, how do you make your spit less bubbly?” the husband asks, calling on another gadget for assistance. Siri first hears “spit” as “spirit,” and then he has to repeat the question.
They talk about spitting in the plastic tube, and then discuss the packaging of the kit. They do not talk about DNA, genealogy or ancestry. They do not anticipate their results, or reflect on the meaning of this test.
Later, in part two, when they get the results back, the couple begins by telling a story. It turns out that another app, a kind of “Tinder for ancestry,” as they call it, has let them know that they are tenth cousins. They pronounce this as strange, and a little embarrassing.
Then they read the husband’s results. He is almost entirely Northern European, Scandinavian and Irish. When he says that he is 2 percent African, their eyes widen momentarily, and suddenly the screen goes blank. It fizzles with a clip of what looks like old TV static.
“Sorry, guys,” they say a few moments later, coming on again. “The battery died.”
At a certain point, news outlets picked up on the trend of the DNA Reveal and began doing their own versions. I click on one clip from the show Fox and Friends. Fox has partnered with the conservative DNA company, MyHeritage, to determine ancestry results of hosts Pete Hegseth and Rachel Campos-Duffy. They begin by explaining that this project all started when Fox and Friends Pete Hegseth announced that he would take a DNA test if Elizabeth Warren would also do so to corroborate her Native American ancestry.
“Are you going to find out that you are actually a Democrat, Pete?” one of the co-host jokes, and everyone laughs.
Then the MyHeritage “Collaborator,” Yvette, reads the results on air.
“You are 96.4 percent Scandinavian,” she tells Pete Hegseth.
He pumps his fist in the air. “Yes!”
Then she goes on to tell him that he is two percent Irish and two percent Western European.
“Nailed it!” He yells, pumping his fist again, presumably because he is entirely white.
Then she moves on to host Rachel Campos-Duffy, beginning, “Now I can’t tell you if you are related to Moana. . ..”
Campos-Duffy jumps in to explain. “My kids are all around the TV right now. This is the most exciting thing that I’ve ever done on Fox & Friends. They want to come out Polynesian, because of Moana.”
“Well, I can tell you that you are 70.9 percent European,” Yvette says reassuringly. “Twenty percent Central American and South American, which you know because of your Spanish heritage, and 7.8 percent African, so you can see where they migrated up.”
“Yes, yes, yes” Campos-Duffy says, cutting her off nervously. “That’s where they migrated up, because the Moors were in Spain for 800 years.” She’s looking at Pete Hegseth as she says this, as if to ask for pardon for her African blood, as if she could be kicked off of Fox & Friends just for having it.
Having a visible ancestry has long been a mark of privilege. The ability to claim a lettered lineage was available only to the few—the literate aristocracy, people who had not been victims of genocide or refugee migration, and people from a self-defending, isolated cultures, like the Lakota people, who place kinship and relations at the center of their network of meaning. For most of this country—kidnapped into slavery, stripped of their names and given those of their “owners,” or migrating away from violence, poverty or persecution—these lineages have not been easily available.
Records are most difficult to trace for African Americans, because most African Americans in this country were only recorded in the census—as humans—beginning in 1870. Before that, they were recorded among non-human property, like livestock and ploughs. To make matters worse, the study of ethnology, and racial science, was mobilized repeatedly throughout our country’s history to support unjust practices, most notably slavery and the genocide of Native Americans. In the nineteenth century, the “American School” of ethnography divided the “types of man” and went so far as to assert the polygenesis of evolution, the idea that difference races evolved at different times and places on the planet, as completely different kinds of humans.. This pseudoscience—presented then as science—hierarchically ranked human kinds, and unsurprisingly put Caucasians at the top. These theories were widespread and popular, and they developed intense currency in the years before the Civil War, when the abolitionist movement was gaining traction and free black communities in the North were undermining ethnographic claims of African inferiority.
Because genealogy and ethnology have been so often been used as accessories to prejudice and power, many Native Americans and African Americans are suspicious of current interest in ancestry, DNA and genealogy. They see the collection of this information as another tool of surveillance, and warn that it could be used to revive racist classifications used to police and exclude people of color. In her 2011 book, Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics and Big Business Recreate Race in the Twenty-First Century, sociologist Dorothy Roberts notes that although the 2000 mapping of the genome found that humans are 99.9 percent alike, this did not signal what some hoped would be the end of racial science. Scientists, instead, concentrated on the one tenth of a percent of human difference. Roberts warned that “biological categories of race” were now being refashioned through genomic research that “modernizes old racial typologies.
In my own conversations, DNA testing seems to be met with the most resistance from my Native American friends. I think that this is because they are aware of traumas inflicted on their people in the name of science, testing and “progress,” and because their communities already preserve ancestry and relations as a central matrix of meaning. I spent several years visiting and interviewing elders of the Oglala Lakota nation, who live on or around the Pine Ridge Reservation, and I witnessed their awareness of kinship branching back and back. Often someone would be telling me about a cousin who lived just down the road, and in the next sentence, mention that cousin’s relations, then in the next sentence, refer to great grandparents, uncles and aunts of those people who were alive 150 years ago. Elders not only remembered ancestors’ names and relations, but aspects of their personalities, who they were. These ancestors are still part of the family, still known, and their descendants are still related. They are not abstractions who need to be resurrected (and surveilled and catalogued) through the help of outsiders’ market-driven science. They are family.
The indigenous experience of ancestry is fundamentally shared, and so it opposes ideas of individual ownership, and the individual quest that often begins market-based genealogical research. This collective aspect of ancestry was illustrated when Native American author Louise Erdrich appeared on Henry Louis Gate’s PBS series Faces of America in 2010. Erdrich, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, decided to ask her tribal elders before participating in the DNA testing that initiates the show’s personalized history lessons. Because they declared this information communal tribal property, they advised her not to participate, and she honored this decision.
Alondra Nelson recounted this episode her 2016 book, The Social Life of DNA, which explores the ways that genetic research reconfigures the stories and identities of communities. While acknowledging the historical trauma of ethnology, and the dangers of reinterpreting history through the too-narrow legitimacy of DNA testing, Nelson goes on to detail the restorative aspects of DNA testing and ancestry research. Nelson herself chose to engage in participant observation, seeking her own roots through African Ancestry.com, and exhaustively exploring the ways that DNA is currently understood in politics, popular culture, national understanding and individual families. She was particularly interested in DNA’s potential to help heal the “ruptures produced by transatlantic slavery,” and observed its pivotal role in “reconciliation projects,” rewriting of stories that repaired falsehoods and fractures in familial and cultural histories.
“Part of the appeal of genetic ancestry testing lies in providing a lexicon with which to continue to speak about the unfinished business of slavery and its lasting shadows: racial discrimination and economic inequality,” Nelson wrote, connecting these stories of the past with an evolving, shared story of the present. She noted DNA tests’ ability to legitimize stories that have long been preserved in the oral histories of marginalized people. While oral histories of black families have always recalled and acknowledged their white ancestry, for instance, as in the mixed lineages of Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Madison, it is the scientific nature of DNA testing that finally legitimated those oral histories and webs of kinship. This legitimacy then allowed these familes of color to take their rightful place in the shared, public narrative of American history. Nelson noted that because DNA is transitive, “political claims via genetics are always simultaneously about the individual and a collective. . .DNA-based techniques allow us to try—or try again—to contemplate, respond to and resolve enduring social wounds.”
Like the popular fairy tales of our time, DNA research enacts a story shape in which an individual’s quest leads to the discovery of collective inheritance, a shared network of kinship and meaning. Through DNA test kits, crowd-sourced family trees, and the market—ironically, the same market that led to the seizure of land from Native Americans and the exploitation of Africans through slavery—many of us are unearthing stories that help us examine injustice, mixing and unequal distributions of privilege within our own ancestral lines. In the self-directed process of researching ancestry, participants connect with ancestors and stories outside the self, and with living relatives— DNA cousins who widen, complicate and humanize our individual understanding of self and heritage. We begin meeting characters from the past, who often look like our cousins of the present, and who can help to humanize the pain, resilience and denials that lurk in our families and nation.
I spend the afternoon watching dozens of these DNA reveal videos. I see one of an adoptee who describes the day that she got her DNA test results as the happiest day of her life, happier than her wedding day or the birth of her children. “When you are adopted, it’s like you’re in a cloud all the time,” she says, “and now I just feel more grounded.”
I can’t help noticing the difference between the videos by white people and those by people of color. Many of the white people have a tone of acquisition or competition about them, a tone exemplified by Pete Hegseth’s fist pump. They don’t know what to say about their percentage of African DNA. African Americans, meanwhile, seem far less surprised to learn that they have European DNA, and yet the knowledge usually leads to a visible moment of reflection. Most of their videos have a tone of reverence, conveying how meaningful this process is to people whose ancestry, names and families were forcibly removed from them through slavery.
The final video that I watch is by GIRLRILLAVINTAGE. She is a young black woman in a crop top, long braids and jewelry. She’s sitting cross-legged on a papasan chair beside a window, and looking openly and honestly at the camera. She begins with a sense of ceremony and sincerity.
“Before I open my results, she says, “I want to thank everyone who helped with this process, both financially and spiritually.”
“I want to say thank you to my ancestors for giving me this DNA. I want to say thank you to the people that survived the middle passage.”
“Now, let’s see. What did my mother’s family give me?” GIRLRILLAVINTAGE is visibly moved, ritually preparing herself for connection and revelation, as she opens the envelope. She takes out her letter and reads it, crying a little. “It says, you are descended from the Mende people of Sierra Leone. This mitochondrial DNA was passed on over the last 500-2000 years.”
She lingers on the numbers. She takes in this long connection to human time. “Enclosed you will find a certificate of ancestry that verifies your maternal ancestry,” she reads.
“Sorry for my tears, guys,” she says, wiping her eyes, “But shit. I am so excited.”
“Cousins! Family. All of us. We the Mende People. Thank you for being with me during this process. We are the African people!”
I feel humbled to have shared this moment with her. I am not one of her cousins, but by posting the video, she has shared her family with me. And she has helped me to feel the reunion that DNA-absed ancestral information can provide, especially to those whose ancestors were kidnapped from their homeland, stripped of their names and repeatedly wrenched from their kin. They help me to think about way racism deadens by erasure, the way being seen as “African American,” can qualify that citizen’s Americanism, and generalize specifics of ethnicity, kinship and ancestry. Racial categories have primarily been used for purposes of exclusion, whereas ethnicity implies belonging—to specific songs, dances, stories, foods and traditions, and most importantly, to specific families.
Some skeptics of AfricanAncestry.com have argued that these results are swindling vulnerable people, connecting them with nations that resulted from colonialism and did not even exist at the time of their ancestors’ kidnapping into slavery. Still, I think that this connection back to Africa is restorative. And I think that GIRLRILLAVINTAGE has said the most important thing to say about any of this. She has said thank you to those ancestors who survived, who lived their lives, often through unbelievable hardship, so that she might live her life now.
Rachel Jamison Webster lives in Evanston, Illinois, where she is an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Northwestern University. She is the author of several books, including The Sea Came Up & Drowned (Raw Books 2020) and Mary is a River (Kelsey Books 2018), which was a finalist for the National Poetry Series in 2014. Her poems, essays and stories appeared in journals and anthologies, including The Yale Review, Poetry; Tin House, The Southern Review; Prairie Schooner, The Paris Review and now Parhelion.