Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

African-American Identity: More than DNA Tests


This month, PBS is running a series called AFRICAN AMERICAN LIVES. It's hosted by historian Henry Lewis Gates, and profiles prominent African Americans who trace their lineage back to Africa using DNA analysis. Commentator John McWhorter says he doesn't need a DNA mouth swab to know where he comes from. He says he's content with his family history the way it is. He's a black American, he admires his ancestors, but says that's all he needs to know.


Back in the day, I was given to mentioning that I would never know exactly where in Africa my ancestors lived. There are so many holes in the data on the slave trade that Alex Hailey, who traced his people back to a specific African nation, was just lucky. As often as not, the trail goes back to a particular plantation, if that, and then goes cold. But now, with the wonders of modern science, all I have to do is hand over a scraping from my cheek and my DNA will be able to tell me whether I trace back to Senegal, Angola or somewhere in between. I suppose I'll get around to it. But I can't say that I've ever felt like I didn't know where my roots were in the meantime, because my roots are right here in the U.S. of A.

Don't get me wrong, there's certainly nothing bad about tracing ourselves back further than plantation slavery. Professor Henry Louis Gates's AFRICAN AMERICAN LIVES mini-series is a rich and fascinating piece of work. I respect those who find comfort in connecting themselves to kingdoms that thrived long before Europeans encountered them. Yet I'm unable to join those who say that finding out that their ancestors lived in Guinea makes them feel whole or that they found home. I get that the kingdom of Benin may seem like a more noble pedigree than working as property in North Carolina, but I've always thought of myself as the descendant of Africans who made the best of the worst after this.

Too often black history is given to us as slavery, sharecropping, lynching, Dr. King and then New Jack City. Of course, we also get the flashcard heroes like George Washington Carver. But often they look like people shouting into the wind, in a country where degradation was the key word. But this leaves out the resilience, the human spirit that's always burned bright in ordinary black people living lives of dignity. Where do I come from? I come from my great grandmother who was a fast living saxophone player raising hell on the new jazz scene in the teens.

Lots of black folks say that they have some Indian in them. Well, I come from another great grandmother who definitely was part Indian. One look at a photo of her in Indian regalia shows that Mary was one proud black woman even when lynching was ordinary. Or I will never forget my great aunt Tia in 1977 casually running, not walking, but running up train station steps at the fine old age of 92. I have a photo of her, to,o as a young woman in the early '20s a confident black American lady for whom Ghana was the last thing on her mind.

Where do I come from? I come from a people who the very year I was born, 1965, had turned America upside down and gained the right to vote in the south. I come from my grandmother, who was a child in Atlanta, was a playmate of the very Martin Luther King who went on to gain us that Voting Rights Act.

Africa was a very, very long time ago. Guineans today are given to calling black American visitors obruni (sic), foreigners, and to me this is natural and gives no insult. What I come from is Great Aunt Tia running up those steps in her stockings, with her crisp Ebonics and musky perfume. I come from black American people. They occasion no shame in me. They are my heroes. They are my home. They are enough.

BLOCK. Commentator John McWhorter is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the author of WINNING THE RACE: BEYOND THE CRISIS IN BLACK AMERICA. He lives in Jersey City, New Jersey. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John McWhorter