Posted in Culture

Inheritance: The Search For My Mother’s Father – Part 4

Inheritance: Part 4 – the DNA test

(Start here – part 1)

A DNA test changes things. It inserts a surgical instrument into the flesh and blood of family and creates cuts and sutures at the same time.

It gives you answers… but sometimes answers only lead to more questions.

 

Percentages

After years of half-hearted searching, false information and leads, my mother decided to take a DNA test. She asked me whether I thought she should do it; of course, she had already decided in her heart, but I agreed that it was a good idea.

After all, there was no point in ignoring the only option that could give her some kind of answer to her lifetime of questions, and even if it didn’t give a definitive answer, something was better than nothing.

The DNA test process was simple and relatively cheap, and consisted of filling a plastic vial with saliva and sending it back to a lab… and then waiting for what seemed to be an eternity.

 

The results

The results of the test were broken down along the lines of genetic ancestry and genetic matches to other curious test takers.

The first area, ancestry, was interesting but not immediately revelatory: it stated that my mother was of 54% European and 45% African descent (with an iffy 1% but-we’re-not-sure Pacific Islander in there as well).

Fifty-four percent? Fifty… four? That extra four seemed to come loose and clatter as if it was made of bells. Everything was simpler when you just divvied up your parents and grandparents fairly and gave them halves and quarters each. With such precision came a weighting towards the unknown that was ever so mildly jarring and less… familial.

Well, for me, at least. My mother loved it.

 

Communities

What I also found fascinating and very, very strange was the breakdown of genetic communities.

I’ve always been curious about exactly where my African ancestors would have come from. Well, now I know where my mother’s African ancestors hailed from:

 

15% Nigeria

13% Ivory Coast/Ghana

7% Mali

5% Benin/Togo

and 5% low-confidence results spread throughout the continent.

 

As for the Europeans:

41% Great Britain

7% Western Europe

and 7% low-confidence results spread throughout the continent.

 

But this relates to thousands of years into the past. The “genetic communities” results showed where her ancestors lived during the past few hundred years.

Of course, the African ancestry has been displaced to the Caribbean, but what I hadn’t counted on was the revelation that the recent European ancestry was now firmly rooted in the American South – namely, Tennessee and Virginia.

 

Tennessee and beyond

Of course, I’ve always known that my ancestors were slaves in the Caribbean – I even know the names of some of their owners. The knowledge that some of my ancestors during the same period were likely slave owners in the southern states – or at least, sympathisers – well, that’s just… weird is the only word that sits well.

Thanks to the magic of the internet and DNA testing, my mother has uncovered not only several new family connections on the Barbadian side who have migrated to other countries, but hundreds of new white American cousins going from Tennessee to California.

Thanks to economic migration, I am the only member of my immediate family (on both maternal and paternal sides) who isn’t an American citizen. As someone who once had American permanent residence and gave it up, quite content never to live there again, discovering actual genetic links to that country feels a bit bizarre.

 

The mystery man

For all of the new cousins uncovered, the question remains: who is the missing relative in common – my mother’s father?

Thanks to some detective work by these new American relatives, my mother now has a clue: a linking relation who died in 2010 in Florida. It’s not a certainty, but it seems that this person – whom I’ll refer to as CT – may have been the mystery man.

 

What’s next?

As precise and vague as things stand thanks to the DNA test, the only thing to do now is to see what else emerges as new relatives come up. My mother enjoys the process of finding and connecting with new family, so she’s in her element.

I’m content to never do a test myself; I think I prefer to construct my identity based on my own life, rather than on who went before me and what kind of people they may or may not have been.

 

 

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3


Roots And Culture

Roots And Culture – how hairdressing constructs identity and race.

Hair, as a somatic marker of race, has historically been used as a tool in order to construct racialized subjects for oppressive means. The politics of afro hair styling – to straighten or remain ‘natural’ – can often appear to be simple, yet there is no clear consensus over how the personal statement becomes politicised, or whether it should.

This essay examines the concept of a post-racial future set out by thinkers such as Emmanuel Eze and Paul Gilroy, and considers the effects of the segregation of service provision for afro hair.

It considers matters of choice in identity and asks whether such a thing as a black community exists, and furthermore, to what extent does hair actively contribute to the concept of black community?

Context

This essay was written in 2013, before Rachel Dolezal became a household name; re-reading my words now, I can’t help but think about her as an example to illustrate the complexity of the construction of identity as well as community and belonging.

At the time, I lived in Peckham; it was a place where I could finally walk into any salon and get my hair done. I hadn’t been able to do that for thirteen years! I had a strange sensation of belonging on one hand, mixed with knowing that I was a newcomer to London and was actually a bit of a cultural mishmash; I didn’t really understand all of the cultures that surrounded me, but it didn’t matter. I still felt as if I could belong.

 

An excerpt.

“Where do you get your hair done?”

Mary had just arrived that month, transplanted from Kenya to Kent because of her new husband’s job at a local hotel. The question didn’t surprise me; I knew it would come eventually. It had to.

There weren’t many people she could have asked, seeing as the question was actually, “where can I get my hair done?”.

In our village there was me, and Donna. Kind of like a black girls’ support network. Only Donna always went up to a woman’s house somewhere in London and came back with a head full of new plaits and visible gridded scalp, and it was like a glorious mystery to me. She sometimes told me before she went, and I would order a box of relaxer so that I could straighten my hair at home, back in the days when I was chemically dependent.

Now, Mary had enough to deal with, learning the language of life in rural England, without having to make her way up to the sprawling metropolis in search of a hairdresser on her own. From where we stood, the A2 and A20 stretched down to us like dark, hairy arachnid arms, reaching out to us, pulling us in.

I knew that the closer we drew to the spider-city’s southern belly, the more they became cluttered with shopfronts offering fried chicken, money transfers, minicabs and, of course, hair. Hair in all forms. Hair to buy. Hair products. Hairdressing. But not just any hair – our hair.

Chapters

  1. Where Do You Get Your Hair Done?
  2. Race
  3. Raciology and Culture
  4. Hair
  5. Roots and Rhizomes
  6. Loose Ends
  7. Bibliography

 

Want to read the rest?

Get the ebook on Amazon for only 99p.

 

Selected bibliography

 

Bell, R. H. 2002. Understanding African Philosophy: A Cross-Cultural Approach To Classical and Contemporary Issues. Routledge. UK

Biddle-Perry, G. & Cheang, S. (eds) 2008. Hair: Styling, Culture And Fashion. 2008. Berg. UK

Danquah, M. N. in: Tate, G. (ed.) 2003. Everything But The Burden: What White People Are Taking From Black Culture. Broadway Books. USA

Foucault, M. 1980. Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. USA

Fuss, D. 1989. Essentially Speaking: Feminism, Nature & Difference. Routledge. UK

Gilroy, P. 2000. Between Camps: Race, Identity and Nationalism at the End of the Colour Line. Allen Lane The Penguin Press. UK

Gilroy, P. 2002 There Ain’t No Black In The Union Jack. Routledge Classic. UK

Mercer, K. 1994. Welcome To The Jungle: New Positions In Black Cultural Studies. Routledge. UK

O’Neal, G. in: Johnson, K. & Lennon, S. (eds) 1999. Appearance And Power. Berg. UK

Stilson, J. 2009. Good Hair. Chris Rock Entertainment/HBO Films. USA

 

Roots And Culture by Lee Devonish - an essay about how hairstyling constructs racial identity and community.


Inheritance: The Search For My Mother’s Father – Part 2

Inheritance: The Search For My Mother’s Father – Part 2

(Start here – part 1)

Over the years, we believed my eldest aunt’s story about the identity of the white man who got my grandmother pregnant.

Joycelyn was the eldest of my grandmother’s two daughters, and although she was only twelve years old at the time, she was more reliable than anyone else who had given us information. However, no one else had any information for us, so my mother had no choice but to believe.

A description and a name

She said that she saw him. He was tall; so tall that he was stooped over. He wore thick glasses. Nothing more was offered about his appearance… of course, we knew the colour of his skin.

My mother and I brought these details out every now and then, and made our own simple stories: of course, this was the reason Mum was so tall. They say bad eyesight can skip a generation, so this was probably why I was the only one in our entire family to need thick glasses.

This was it. That was all there was.

 

That, and a name: Bloodsworth.

 

Intriguing as it sounded, neither of us liked it. It gave us nothing as well. No clues, no leads.

The only other thing that added to our thin story was the idea that he was in the US Navy.

 

Arcana Maris Quaerere

The US Naval base in St. Lucy was decommissioned in 1979, the year that I was born.

I had only heard of its existence because of our family history mystery, and the suggestion that my mother’s father might have been an American sailor stationed there. I imagined that there were plenty of US Navy men in the Caribbean during the second world war and afterwards; listening to Jean and Dinah told me to expect that.

Still, I had never seen it, and never knew anyone who had – or had even heard of it. Growing up in Christ Church, St. Lucy might as well have been on another planet, and besides, the past is a foreign land.

The motto

It was during this recent search that I found the facility’s motto – Arcana Maris Quaerere – by my translation, something like “mysterious sea search”. It felt weirdly fitting, as all we had done for years was wade through opaque water, angling for one small fish in an ocean of men.

 

In the late 1990’s, my mother and I went to the Archives together to see what we could turn up about this missing man, as well as our real family. Scanning through the microfilm made me feel seasick, and I came away with a lot of jumbled Devonishes, but hardly any way of putting them together to make me. There wasn’t enough time to uncover much more, and there didn’t seem to be much point to it.

 

Searching the mysterious sea of mankind

Pre-internet searching for an unknown American sailor was pointless. We came across the same problem: no full name, no social security number, no clue.

Only recently did I even try to find out more about the St. Lucy naval base through a simple online search; this time, with so much less effort, I found out more about it than I ever had before.

This raised more questions though – the base that was decommissioned in the year of my birth was commissioned in the year of my mother’s birth – only two months beforehand, actually. How could any of those 100 officers or enlisted men be my grandfather? Of course, I reasoned, the base would have had to have been staffed and prepared prior to its official opening… still, there was no way of knowing if we were on the right track.

 

 

 

A new problem

In the midst of the search, something happened to overturn everything we thought we knew for decades: my aunt decided to remember.

After almost 60 years, she said that she remembered the man’s name, and where he was from. She said that he was Richard Weinberg, and that he was either from Australia or England.

 

I might have said that she delivered a curve ball, but being Bajans, it would be more accurate to say that she bowled us a yorker.

Everything that we thought we knew was wrong – or was it? How or why could she suddenly remember, and why did she give us two very different names?

A full name was more than we could ever have hoped for up until this point… but could we trust it?

 

To be continued.

.

 


Inheritance: The Search For My Mother’s Father – Part 1

Inheritance: the search for my mother’s father.

Every story needs a bit of mystery.

My mother’s life story has always intrigued me because of its mystery.

In a way, her story is mine, and it’s my son’s as well, but no-one has felt the effect of it in the way she has. My mother’s story began with her own mother, Lillian, known to everyone in our family as Ma.

Ma had a secret that everyone knew about, but no-one ever mentioned – a secret she took to her grave. The only part of it we know is the one part that could not be denied:  the secret involved a white man.

 

Ma and me.
Ma and me.

Our family

By the time I was born, my family had moved on up from a dirt floored chattel house in Brittons Hill to a government housing scheme house in Christ Church – what one would refer to in Britain as a council house.

My two-up, two-down (another Anglicising term) childhood home had an indoor toilet and a pipe for a shower, and whilst it was all I had ever known, for my mother and her sisters, it was wonderful.

I never heard stories of suffering from poverty, but I did hear the familiar story of my middle aunt going to school and telling numerous lies about having carpets and a fridge, and more interestingly, peanut butter.

There were still plenty of people who had pit toilets in their yards and showered outdoors under a pipe (and I used both on visits to my friends’ houses) but they were fewer than a few decades before. The one thing that had stayed more or less unchanged, though, was the fact that in our neighbourhood, there were no white people. Before the black-and-white tv arrived (sometime after I did), there were no white people at all, and after the tv, they were there in the box, but appearing only in shades of grey.

Unexpected whiteness?

Lillian had two daughters before my mother came along. She was in her 40’s, so the baby must have been a surprise; still, no-one alive now knows how much of a surprise it was when the baby, another girl, turned out to be very pale, with fine, straight hair. Maybe Ma was the only one who wasn’t surprised.

The Barbados that my mother, Cheryl, was born into in 1957 was a very different place to the country I came into twenty-two years later. Still, in both of our experiences, we were never “mixed-race”; we were either called brown-skin or red. Much more rarely was the word “white” used, and in my experience, it was usually used in a negative way.

Being the odd one out of her family didn’t seem to bother my mother much, although she often recounted having “Eeeeur-pean!” shouted at her in the street.

Whatever she looked like, she wasn’t a European. She was as Bajan as her mother and sisters, the only difference being that her sisters knew who their respective fathers were. Of course, there were plenty of times when someone called her “ecky becky” and “redlegs”. In our family, in our neighbourhood, in our circle of friends, my mother was accepted because she was no different from everyone else.

 

My mother as a teenager in Gall Hill, Barbados.
My mother as a teenager.

Resisting difference

I always thought that my mother didn’t care very much about the other, unknown side of her family – in fact, I found it hard to think of the missing man as part of her family, or mine, at all. After all, he wasn’t actually real, just a hypothetical white grandfather I have to pin my skin colour on.

After all, if I never knew any more, I would never have to accept difference from the rest of my family – something I was never willing to do.

It turned out that the missing man meant a lot more to my mother than I realised – of course it did.

Maybe as a little girl she dreamt about someone who looked like her walking down the street and telling her his name, to finally know as much about herself as her sisters knew about themselves.

Forty-four years passed, but no mystery man ever appeared, and no answer ever came from Ma. She took his identity to her grave.

None of us know why.

Answers… and more questions.

We did try to piece together the few clues we had as the years went by, but they came to nothing. That was how I assumed that it would stay, until my mother told me that she was about to take a DNA test. What she found next made me question the way I had constructed my own identity as well as the assumptions I’d always made about my outlook on race, culture and belonging.

 

This is my mother's story - searching for clues about her genetic inheritance, and how this relates to our Barbadian identity.

Part 2.

 


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