A GREAT-GREAT-GRANDDAUGHTER’S MUSING
When genetic technology tells you you’re not who you’ve always been told you are, somebody’s got some ‘splainin’ to do.
No, my daddy is my father and my mama is my mother. Like most genealogical quandaries, mine goes much deeper than that. It, like many African-American familial stories, is haunted by slavery’s ravages, “Dark Continent” stigma, and Native American exoticism.
To say a brother’s DNA test filled me with disappointment, though, wouldn’t be accurate. I marveled at how a mouthful of saliva could transport my siblings and me percentage by percentage to where our African ancestors were born:
Nigeria (31%); Ivory Coast/Ghana (22%); Cameroon/Congo (14%); Benin/Togo (7%); and Trace Regions (8%).
Those ethnicity estimates filled the void where generations of my family had teetered. We’d stood on the edge of a pit with jagged edges and slick walls, and had no way to get to what could tell us who we were and where we were from.
Ticking off the names of African regions accounting for 82% of our ethnic makeup was exhilarating. Being able to stick virtual pins into specific points on the continent that had birthed most of our physical features and many of our cultural practices felt so good.
Each area settled into its place on the map of our lives. And then, amid the celebration of self-discovery, I slid into mourning. My mind skimmed atrocities that enslaved ancestors had endured—calling forth conditions that stripped, matted, knotted, and plaited together roots from more than EIGHT West African nations.
That, of course, wrapped a winding sheet around the revelation of just where my family’s white blood came from—EUROPE [16%] – Great Britain (10%) and Trace Regions (6%). I was in no mood to imagine any mitigating factor that could account for how that element of my admixture had been introduced. I knew the chances of it having come about under any circumstance beyond some gradient of force were nonexistent. (In an NPR piece with interviewer Terry Gross, historian and Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., addresses this fact in one of the best ways I’ve ever heard.)
While American history had prepared me to acknowledge double-digit white extraction, I was surprised to see the two trace regions representing my final 2%: Asia and West Asia. And that’s when the math broadsided me. According to my family’s oral history and my mother’s personal encounters, the DNA of a very special someone was missing.
A DNA Mystery
There was no mention of my brother having any Native American blood. The company’s ethnicity estimates did not equate “Native American” with “Asia and West Asia”—despite a prevailing theory that ancestral Native Americans migrated from the Siberian Highlands.
So, there was no reflection of Henrietta Baker, our maternal great-great-grandmother—a “‘full-blooded Indian’ raised by white people,” my mother and her mother always said. Here’s essentially how the story surrounding Henrietta’s “adoption,” as disturbing as it is intriguing, has nested in our family tree:
A day or so after some white folk raided an Indian village, somebody found a baby tucked away in a tepee—all alone. They took her into town and gave her to a white couple, who raised her as “Henrietta Baker.”
My mother laid eyes on her great-grandmother Henrietta only a couple of times. As young children, she and her sister gawked at the “strange-looking woman” occupying a bedroom in their grandma Mary Mann George’s house.
We’d sneak and stare at her. And wonder why Grandma had an old white woman in her house. She had really long, silky, white hair. Later they said she was an Indian, raised by white folk. And she was married to Grandma’s daddy, Riley Mann, who was half black and half white.
A story like that anchoring someone to your roots arouses curiosity—especially when a DNA report seems to say it ain’t so.
But when I first saw my brother’s ethnicity estimates, Grandma Henrietta’s omission was little more than eyebrow-raising: a thorn that pricked only when I slowed down long enough to think about it. After all, no one in my family had any obsession with having Native American blood. I simply wondered how an entire person’s genome as my family knew it could show up nowhere.
I gave little consideration to the possibility that the DNA service’s actual analysis of the reported sample was wrong. So, instead of holding onto a cry of “SCIENCE FOUL,” I settled into a more comfortable position: Somehow my brother had gotten the wrong report—of someone else’s test. That had to be it, because nothing in the oral history on my mother’s mother’s mother’s side accounted for what we didn’t see. He needed a do-over, or a refund.
A year or so later, when a second brother’s DNA results came back practically identical to the first . . . I couldn’t believe my great-great-grandmother was still unlocatable in the genetic profile. The situation seemed almost laughable. Forget “almost” . . . I did laugh—the kind of nervous laughter that crawls out of your gut when you’re smacked by something that just can’t be true.
“I knew these companies couldn’t get it right!” I exclaimed. I so wanted to pin the omission on flat-out scientific error but remembered reading that direct-to-consumer DNA services are said to be 99.9% accurate. (I took that to include avoiding online results mix-ups, too. Besides, how likely was it that both brothers had gotten “someone else’s” results?) Onward, I went . . .
The transatlantic slave trade’s coring of West Africa made the patchwork of African regions feel like the cloak we’d expected. And the white data . . . the shoes forced on us that fit just as well as any others at the back of our American closet. So, with estimates in hand, we wore ourselves well, as we’d always done: heads high, backs straight, shoulders tall.
Even with Henrietta Baker nowhere in sight, we carried her with us because our mother and her mother knew her and had been told who she was.
The Plot Twists
Nearly a year later, my brothers’ numbers changed remarkably. The DNA service had updated its ethnicity estimating process and added global regions—reflecting new data and improved analysis methods, it said.
And . . . Grandma Henrietta was “ghosted” again (along with the trace Asian regions). The “new and improved” breakdown looked like this: Cameroon, Congo, and Southern Bantu Peoples (46%); Benin/Togo (20%); England, Wales, and Northwestern Europe (14%); Ivory Coast/Ghana, (11%); Mali (3%); Norway (3%); Ireland and Scotland (1%); Nigeria (1%); and Eastern Europe and Russia (1%).
So, my brothers (and I) had undergone quite the reconstitution: most notably from being almost one-third Nigerian to having only a trace amount of that region’s DNA; being of Southern Bantu Peoples stock (which exists across a broad stretch of Africa); and seeing a more expansive white representation, spanning from England to Russia.
I set the dueling profiles aside for a time, allowing them to gather dust like cast-off tangles of yarn. I didn’t quite know what I should make of what they’d sorted out. A well-regarded company had sent markedly divergent sketches—with a known ancestor missing from every rendering.
Then one day a photo of my grandmother Leola George Copeland Lundy (one of Henrietta’s five grandchildren) popped up on my computer screen. Her sweet smile really got me. Forget 99.9% accuracy and database refinement. I knew I had to try to needle my way through Henrietta Baker’s mystery.
Exactly what was the deal? Why was someone my grandmother had touched and cared for absent from my brothers’ DNA samples? An ancestor whose face my mother knew. Someone whose eyes I even might’ve seen in her daughter’s, the only time I spent part of a summer at my great-grandmother’s. I wondered if I’d ever know.
A Scholar's Story
Months later, I watched an episode of the PBS rave Finding Your Roots. In it, Professor Gates lightheartedly shares how he almost got “kicked out” of his family for revealing (in a segment of the show African American Lives) that there was only a trace amount of Native American ancestry in its bloodline. He tells how some of his relatives rather heatedly recalled certain distinctively “Indian” features that various family members have had.
The high cheekbones and straight hair texture a number of the professor’s relatives have long pointed to as Native American expressions, Gates says, are due to a “surprisingly high amount” of white blood in his family’s veins (50.5%). African DNA, he notes, accounts for a little over 48%—leaving Native American DNA to be less than 1%. (Professor Gates also relates the story as part of “High Cheekbones & Straight Black Hair?”—an article posted on The Root.)
Another fact the genealogy scholar brings up in the piece is the reality of blacks and indigenous peoples’ infrequent contact. He stresses that there just wasn’t that much interaction between the two groups overall for there to be as much Native American blood in African-American families as legend proclaims.
Black and Native American proximity, though, doesn’t underpin Henrietta Baker’s ethnic story as I know it. How my “full-blooded Indian” great-great-grandmother came to be a pillar of my family followed a completely different route: She was said to have been found in a Native American community and then raised in a white family in Georgia.
My Larger Personal Story
My mother, Eloise Copeland Formey, was a huge genealogy fan. She spent many hours researching her lineage, mapping whatever she could. Had she not become gravely ill just over a month after her favorite ancestry site began offering DNA testing, I have no doubt she would’ve been among its first customers.
Using what was available to her, many a day she’d plant her foot at the base of a mountain of information, strap in, and explore as much as she could. One of her greatest hopes was discovering something more solid about her great-grandma Henrietta. A something that always eluded her.
So, my siblings and I are perfectly satisfied to say we have no Native American ancestry—if we don’t. But if it’s there, even in the minutest amount (in the form of our mother’s great-grandmother’s blood), we should be able to see it among the long list of ethnicities in our family members’ DNA test reports. Or should we?
I saw where two companies I checked out underscore the fact that siblings might inherit DNA differently. (HINT HINT . . . “The whole lot o’ ya should be tested.”) Of course, it’s not surprising that a DNA business would suggest that.
Another point they make is that with each passing generation, the chance of a given ancestor’s DNA being lost entirely (or untraceable in testing) increases. And, you guessed it, if what you’re looking for doesn’t show up in your report . . . they recommend testing a parent or grandparent, if possible. (WINK WINK . . .)
While Gates and experts mentioned in the “High Cheekbones” article (a geneticist from yet another DNA testing service and a population biology professor) acknowledge the roulette wheel of inheritance, they say losing ancestral DNA altogether (dating back five generations even) isn’t likely.
According to the population scientist, “the percent probability of an ancestor not passing on any DNA to you is basically zero back 180 years (assuming each generation is 30 years), and is only about 5 percent back 210 years or seven generations ago, to 1814.”
Besides these competing messages, there’s this to consider: Many indigenous tribes refuse to submit to sampling so that their DNA can be included in test banks. Among their concerns is a long history of trust abuse.
In a National Human Genome Research Institute article (“DNA Tests Stand on Shaky Ground to Define Native American Identity”), science writer Teresa L. Carey discusses this mistrust. She also presents two bioethics experts’ concerns about blind reliance on direct-to-consumer DNA tests that include “Native American heritage in their algorithm, despite limited data.”
What I Know For Sure
Nothing that categorically establishes Henrietta Baker’s ethnic identity . . .
That a number of variables surrounding direct-to-consumer DNA testing make ancestral pinpointing uncertain . . .
And that a stampede of speculation about Henrietta’s origins can send minds dashing off and camping in myriad directions, like this short list:
Henrietta Baker . . .
- Was left behind around 1870, during a raid on indigenous people who’d managed to survive at least a generation after the official “Indian Removal” in Southeast Georgia in 1840. (Similar to Seminole resistors who escaped to the swamps of Florida and engaged in guerilla warfare against the U.S. government until the 1840s?)
2. Was discovered and taken to be cared for by a white family, who “adopted” her and revealed her Native American ethnicity to her.
3. Could’ve been the biological child of a white woman, and, at birth, bore features strikingly different in structure and coloring from both mother and father because the man of the house was “not the father,” but accepted the child and, as a social shield for the entire family, claimed the baby the wife delivered hadn’t survived and that a miracle replacement had appeared on their doorstep, wrapped in a Native American “blanket.”
4. Could’ve been the biological child of two white parents, and, at birth, had skin tinged with African blood because the mother or father (or both) had been passing for white, and as a social shield for the entire family, the couple claimed they’d lost their baby but a miracle brought them a “poor little abandoned Indian.”
5. Could’ve adopted the “Indian” label herself, in rejection of white blood she felt, or knew, was there by means she never wanted to think or speak of.
As a light-skinned, sixty-something African-American man recently shared with me he’d routinely done as a teen.
A tendency Gates says wasn’t uncommon. He cites anthropologist Nina Jablonski’s explanation: “Everyone wants to feel good about their ancestors. Having a Native American in one’s background is ennobling and elevating, but having physical traits associated with European subjugation is not.”
Final Words . . .
I simply am who I am:
A proud descendant of Africans (whose names I will never know).
The great-great-granddaughter of an old “white-looking” woman with long, silky, white hair—a mysterious soul whose name I do know. Whose eyes my mother saw. Whose hands my grandmother held. Whose ethnic truth was worthy of official documentation when it would’ve mattered to her most.
Was she Creek (Muscogee) or Cherokee? Native American at all? Conveniently packaged to accommodate somebody else’s shame? Or, embracing what served her best—at a time when light skin, high cheekbones, and straight hair would speak for her before she could say a word.
Ever wondering . . .