The other day at breakfast, I was handing my five-year-old some toast…
Me: Here, eat some jam and bread like your ancestors.
Brontë: What are my “ancestors?”
Me: Well… okay, you know how I’m your mom and my mom is your grandma?
Me: Her mom is your great-grandma, right? And her mom was your great-great-grandma. If you keep going, you get to your ancestors… like your great-great-great-great-great-grandma. A lot of them came out of England and Scotland where they have lots of shows about orphans and eat jam and bread.
She ponders this.
Brontë: We have boys in our family, right?
Me: Of course!
Brontë: And they are our “an-brothers?”
Me: Oh… no. They’re also our ancestors. It’s an-CEST-ors, not an-SIST-ers…
I always knew I was white, but never realized HOW white until my mother ran 23andme genetic tests on many family members a while back.
Because people assume I’m a foreigner all the time, I had long suspected something else was in the mix. Strangers often ask me where I’m from and when I tell them California they get frustrated, saying “No, I mean WHAT COUNTRY are you from?” as I stare back at them, perplexed. Police officers even ask me if I can speak English.
One time in boot camp, in South Carolina, one of the African-American drill sergeants was calling roll when he shouted “O’Leary!” and I shouted “Present!” (People call you by your last name in the military and we’re going to pretend my last name is “O’Leary” for a moment.)
He walked up to me, looked me over, cocked his head sideways and said, “You ain’t entirely white, are ya, O’Leary?”
He said it with the kind of Southern accent whose authenticity you suspect, since many people in the military are Southerners and the rest tend to suddenly adopt Southern accents upon enlistment.
I wasn’t clear on his motivations for asking me. Maybe he was trying to rile me (since drill sergeants spend most of boot camp trying to do just that) but if so, he was barking up the wrong tree. Because I wasn’t at all put off by the notion of not looking entirely white.
“Well, it’s hard to say, Sir,” I responded. “I’ve always been under the impression that I’m white, but who knows what your ancestors were up to and what got covered up? I’m told there’s some Cherokee in our blood, but I don’t know about anything else.”
“That must be it. Where are you from, O’Leary?”
“California, Sir. Northern California.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Somewhere near Humboldt County?”
“Yes, somewhat near, Sir.”
He smirked. “You’re alright, O’Leary,” he said. “You’re alright.”
He walked away as I tried not to laugh, realizing that 1) he took my awkward rambling for evidence of chronic weed use, and 2) chronic weed smoking made me alright in his book.
Maybe he was testing me or maybe he just thought I looked unusual, but my Cherokee explanation seemed to satisfy his curiosity. As far as I knew, my ancestors on my mother’s side were Scotch-Irish immigrants who lived in the Appalachian hills, armed with shotguns, before becoming midwestern farmers who made their way West in search of better jobs during the Depression, Grapes of Wrath style.
Dad’s family, on the other hand, came from Scotland. My great-great-etc grandfather graduated from the University of Glasgow before moving to America, working as a Confederate doctor during the Civil War, and settling in Oklahoma. Somewhere in there, someone had a Cherokee mistress, “as cruel as she was beautiful.”
Or so I was told.
My grandfather, according to family legend, was eligible for a tribal roll number but declined it since he could pass for white, which is what people wanted to do back then.
This injection of Cherokee into the family bloodline had decidedly Slavic-looking results. One time at Target, a Russian woman walked up to me and started asking me questions in Russian. After I helplessly shrugged, she rolled eyes that seemed to say “Oh FINE, now you’re AMERICAN and don’t remember Russian anymore” before stomping off as I yelled “I’m really not Russian! I really can’t speak it!” after her.
And when I lived in San Francisco, the Russian doorman repeatedly insisted I was Slavic. I would tell him I wasn’t and he would look deep into my eyes, point an index finger skyward, and slowly say, “Only the mother really knows…”
He was so convincing, I half expected to find Slavic blood in my 23 and me report, but pulling it up revealed these results: white, white and whiter, with an mild sprinkling of extra white.
That may be a bit of an oversimplification.
Technically, the test revealed that I’m mostly British/Irish/Scottish with some French/Italian and a surprising chunk of Scandinavian thrown in. 99.8 % European, at any rate… a bloodline to satisfy the most discriminating of SS officers.
It was pretty disappointing, actually… I’d been hoping for a more colorful pedigree. There was a dash of Jewish and North African, but both accounted for less than 0.1%.
And Native American? ZERO percent.
Baffling. I’d grown up hearing stories about our Cherokee past all my life, and my father wasn’t having it. He was certain they made a mistake.
But after doing a little research, it turns out that family legends about supposedly having Cherokee blood are common and usually untrue.
Maybe we just long for a more interesting family background, or maybe we hope to balance feelings of ancestral guilt with the idea that we also came from oppressed people?
Because when I look into my family tree, I only see conquerors and raping, pillaging Vikings. I wonder if my empathy for the Trail of Tears is any less valid, now that I have no genetic connection to it (no connection to the sympathetic side, at least).
True, I have lots of Celtic blood and Celts were oppressed for centuries, but my ancestors probably lost the moral high ground after joining up with the Confederates.
Either way, it brings to mind many questions about what our heritage really means. Do we pass on ancestral guilt through our bloodlines, like the moral failings of Adam and Eve supposedly pass to every newborn, according to The Good Book, or are we free agents? Do we inherit the moral high ground, demanding a balancing of the books for what our forefathers endured, or is everything reset at birth?
Balancing those books might be a tougher job than we thought, given how much history has been scrambled with anecdotal stories and family lore. Check out this story of a man in California, who was shocked to find out he wasn’t black after a lifetime of great pride in his African heritage.
I imagine that questions of cultural identity will be increasingly complicated as genetic testing becomes more sophisticated and widespread. Do your genetics matter more than your personal experiences? Does culture shape you more than family background? Do your features shape your personal experience more than any particular DNA?