Last Christmas a package arrived from 23andMe, a DNA testing company – a gift from my sister Pam. Wasn’t it going to be fun? Now the three oldest sisters (out of 9 children with varying combinations of parents) will finally find out what our true heritage is. What secrets does our DNA hold? And guess what? A few months later we were all officially designated as Ashkenazi Jews – for me, 96.2%. I have to admit I was a little disappointed. I always knew I was Jewish but I had really hoped there was something a little more exotic and interesting. (What? Ashkenazi isn’t exotic enough for you?!!) Maybe the other 3.8% would spice up the mix. And there it was, somewhere in the mists of time an ancestor was 100% Finnish and even better, 100% Eastern African. Now you’re talking! Some great great great great+ perhaps Ethiopian, Egyptian or Madagascan grandparent in the 1680s to 1770s contributed to my valiant bloodline.
I thought about all of this listening to the April 19, 2017 podcast from the co-hosts of Another Round, entitled “I Got Indian in My Family.” Tracy Clayton and Heben Nigatu talk about the challenges for black Americans in pinning down their slavery-obscured roots, often assumed to be a mix of black, white and native American. That was the case for Tracy who was taken aback when her DNA testing revealed to her relief, predominantly black but to her disappointment, no native American ancestry at all. What about all those family stories? What was true? The DNA or the stories?
I resonated with Tracy’s disappointment but it also prompted me to remember that who we are at our core has absolutely nothing to do with DNA and everything to do with what we believe about ourselves. Perhaps Tracy liked knowing she had native American ancestry because she believed her family’s stories. Perhaps I liked knowing I had a midge of Eastern African blood because I always believed it and liked it. At the end of the day, we are a lot more than DNA and we are part of a much bigger world than our past. In the podcast, the hosts turn to Tiya Miles (University of Michigan) about the native American DNA question who asked a wonderful question – “are we living in good relations with this place, not only with each other but the land and the water?” I would add to that, are we living in good relations with the very essence of our being – what we believe about ourselves and others? If only there could be a DNA test for beliefs. That would tell us a lot more about who we are than any geographical factor.