The Personal is Historical

by Eric M. Washington

Next Monday is Emancipation Day in most of the Caribbean and in some places in the African Diaspora. Slavery ended in the British West Indies in August 1834 (though four years of an “apprenticeship” period stretched “unfree” labor to 1838). I had planned to write about Frederick Douglass’ Emancipation Day speech from August 1857, and make a case for why African Americans should still observe it in addition to Juneteenth (June 19). However, something unexpected occurred on this past Sunday night that derailed those plans, and this has been a totally conscious re-orienting event. A few weeks ago I purchased a DNA test to trace my heritage. I had been thinking of this for a couple of years, but had been reluctant to undergo the test. Feelings of anxiety over possibly surprising or embarrassing results arrested my steps.

After three wonderful weeks in Ghana this January, I decided it was time to swab my cheeks. I felt at home on the streets of Akropong and Accra, and soaked in all of the rich culture along the sun-drenched coast and in the hot and dry north. I experienced a spiritual connection to the people akin to the connection I know from back home in New Orleans growing up in an African-American neighborhood within a “Chocolate City.” If a person of African descent travels to Africa, especially West Africa without knowledge of his or her specific African origins, the wonderment will occur centered on the question: where am I from? This happened to me. The persistent question that echoed in my heart and mind as I traveled through Ghana was: am I from here?

As of this past Sunday night, I know the answer to that question and others. With this new knowledge of my ancestry, it has already changed how I view myself in this world, and it will change how I teach World, African, and African-American history.

I was totally unprepared to learn of my DNA origins this past Sunday. I had received an email on July 23 stating that the test was in process and that I should expect the results between August 6-August 13. On a whim, I checked my email to see if there was an update. Sure enough, there was. The results were in! I took a deep and heavy sigh. It was time to take the plunge into the deep waters of my ancestral past. I opened the email, clicked on the link to unlock my ethnic composition, held my breath a little, and I clicked one last click to reveal my origins. It was like a reveal party for one! What I found has been the cause of much rejoicing and high-stepping the past few days. When the presentation began, my eyes widened with great satisfaction that my primary ethnicity is “Nigerian” (big country with a couple of hundred of ethnic groups), then my delight increased by viewing that I am generally “West African.” The most surprising element of my African DNA is the Kenyan part. Another surprise was a percentage of my DNA emanates from North Africa. All told 77% of my DNA is African. I was hoping for 60%; so this revelation is beyond my imagination. The remaining 23% can be traced to the British Isles, the Iberian peninsula, and Italy.

Map from "My Heritage DNA", highlighting the regions in Africa where my ancestors were from.

Since this glad discovery, I’ve been analyzing this as a historian. I have questions: is the percentage of Iberian DNA a result of ancestral mixing in North Africa, and then those ancestors migrating into the Sahel? Were some of my ancestors Moors? And what about that small slice of Italian DNA? Was this a result of a remote Italian ancestor or an ancestor who had some Italian ancestry venturing into North Africa in the remote past? Most of my European DNA is from anywhere in Ireland, Wales, or Scotland. It’s fairly immediate. Was this the result of an Irish slaveholder, or plantation manager raping one of my great-great-grandmothers? Or was this a consensual relationship? My mother’s maiden name is Kennedy, and one census record lists her Louisiana-born father as a “mulatto.” And what about that Kenyan DNA? This is either the result of long-distance migration of ancestors from that area to West Africa, or the result of them being captives and transported to an Atlantic slave port rather than an Indian Ocean one. I lean to the former, not the latter. I believe knowing my ancestral origins has opened up many doors of historical investigation.

How will this disclosure help me become a better teacher? It can help me in at least two ways. First, this disclosure will lead me to investigate more of North African history prior to the advent of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. What was the degree of interaction between North Africa and the Iberia peninsula? What was the level of intercourse between the Maghreb and the Western Sudan before the era of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade? I know the rudiments, but now my curiosity has been piqued. I have a stake in entering into more depth in answering these questions. Second, I’m motivated to learn more about the process of creolization that Africans underwent in the New World. How did Igbos, Malinkes, Wolofs, Fantes, etc. become Africans first, and then African Americans? I teach creolization already. I have taught about the resilience of West and West Central African cultures amid enslavement and beyond. Still, my thirst to know more has been increased. Hopefully, my future students will benefit from this new quest of mine for more historical knowledge.

I’m amazed that my African DNA is as diverse as it is. It is conceivable that I have ancestors from at least four different areas in West Africa alone. Because men and women of West African descent came together sexually through the most horrible of life situations in the Western Hemisphere, I am. The majority of their names I will never know. Still, I am. It’s history, but it’s also personal.

Eric Michael Washington is assistant professor of history and director of African and African Diaspora Studies at Calvin College. He is primarily interested in studying the African American church from its development in the late 18th century through the 19th century, and individual Christians, primarily Calvinists. He also has a growing academic interest in the growing “Black and Reformed” movement in North America.

2 thoughts on “The Personal is Historical

  1. Greg

    Thanks for sharing this personal experience Eric. My first thought regarding the Italian was remembrance of a friend who grew up in an Italian enclave in Ethiopia.


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