By Nikki Igbo
On my mother’s side of the family tree, we can trace certain roots back to the 16th century. The lineage leads to a collection of nobles and landed gentry who had the power and resources to literally own people. Other than the discovery that Barack Obama and I share a common ancestor, I can’t say I’m thrilled with these revelations. As if anyone cares how these people relate to me. As if anyone would classify me as White or European because of it.
I wanted to know about the people who gave me my Black identity so I decided to test my DNA.
When I first learned of Black celebs like Danny Glover and Forest Whitaker being able to trace their lineage back to their specific African origins, I wanted to learn my truth as well but I thought I’d have to get rich first and/or rob a bank. Luckily DNA testing has advanced considerably in capability and affordability. Taking advantage of today’s brave new world, I recently received my results.
Turns out that my African ancestry accounts for 85% of my heritage. I’m 53% Nigerian and 13% Senegalese with some Bantu, Beninese and Togolese ties. Learning this about myself left me with some great emotional highs but also a few misgivings. After chatting with a fellow friend and writer, Afropunk editorialist Erin White, I found I wasn’t alone.
PRO: Pride and joy in knowing.
“The results made me want to purchase all sorts of things with the Cameroonian flag on it,” Erin said of her initial reaction to her 30% Cameroonian, 19% Beninese/Togolese, 17% Ivorian/Ghanaian heritage. I knew exactly what she was saying. I felt as if I’d gained entrance to an exclusive, elite membership—as if I’d learned I was heir to a great kingdom. And still that doesn’t quite describe my happiness. I am connected to Nigeria in marriage, motherhood and within my own blood. To think that the life I’ve built indicates that I somehow already knew brings me to tears every time I think about it.
PRO: Seeing myself with new eyes.
I am Nigerian. That feeling I got after I read ‘Things Fall Apart’ in third grade. My infatuation with egusi soup and jollof rice. My deep appreciation for language and storytelling. My obsession with entrepreneurship. The way strong family and community means everything to me. The way my rare periaucular sinuses match my husband, my in-laws and a whole lot of people in Afikpo. Yeah, that’s straight up Naija. My husband always told me to say “I’m Nigerian” whenever anyone asked my background. Until the test, I always felt the need to explain why I claimed to be Nigerian. “I’m from California, I’m African-American married to a Nigerian man, yadda.” I felt like I was perpetrating if I didn’t. These days I’m just waiting for the next person to ask me. I wonder how it will feel to say it then.
PRO: The question mark ends with me.
CON: The adjustment of owning a newly-discovered heritage.
“I felt a slight uneasiness over the implication of the presence of Whiteness in my DNA,” Erin confided. “It’s still not totally clear to me what context these White people were ‘involved’ with my family, outside of being from two of my great grand-parents. Were these consensual interracial relationships near the turn of the 20th century? Doubtful.”
That troubled me somewhat as well.
CON: The need to know more.
I put off taking the test for a pretty lengthy amount of time because I wondered if I would be satisfied with simply knowing my ethnic makeup only. Before the test, I wondered about the language and dialect my ancestors spoke, the clothing they wore, the songs they sang, the recipes they loved, the way they braided or wrapped their hair, the witty little sayings and proverbs they passed down to each other.
Erin noted, “Getting the results of your DNA test will likely lead to more questions, and that can be a lot of fun, but to get real answers, it can cost a lot of money, too.”
For now, it’s enough for me to know this puzzle piece. I have a strong identity in being African-American. Nigerian-American. I don’t know how long it will take for me to get used to saying it, to get comfortable inside this marriage of histories…what I’ve gained in the knowledge, and the baggage I’ve lost.