DNA Testing & The Courage to Know the Truth
Updated: Apr 4, 2019
”Truth is the ultimate power. When the truth comes around, all the lies have to run and hide.” -- Ice Cube (Artist, Actor, Producer, and Entrepreneur)
This journey of discovering family has been an incredible one! Perhaps my experience is rare, but the family members whom I have had the opportunity to meet so far in person, online, or over the telephone, all seem to be pretty phenomenal people. They, their spouses, and sometimes their children have taken the initiative to learn the truth about the very essence of who they are, through ancestral DNA testing, to discover their biological makeup and their family lineages.
Our reasons for taking DNA tests are different.
As I’ve shared previously, I am constantly asked, “Where are you from?” The question usually implies that I am from a country other than the US. The query has followed me from South Carolina to North Carolina and on to Texas, and it follows me as I travel around the US. Students from various African countries, who were enrolled in the world literature classes I taught at a university in Dallas, inquired too. Finally, curiosity got the better of me, and I took the DNA test. I was surprised to discover that the various places and people others assume I am connected to (Cameroon, Bantu, Mali, Congo, Benin Togo, and Ivory Coast) are as apparent in my genetic code as they are in the features on my face. Perhaps the Swedish and Norwegian DNA findings were surprising when I had expected to find only Scottish and English ancestry, but otherwise, taking the DNA test held no trepidation for me. It was replete with many wonderful and interesting discoveries, but that’s not everyone’s story.
Some family members have only known themselves to be English, Jewish, Latino, or Italian. They were shocked to discover that their DNA matches mine, but what comprises an overwhelming portion of my genetic makeup usually appears as less than 25% of theirs. Their physical appearances show less evidence of our biological connections, but that’s why I love DNA testing. Genetic material just… is. DNA reveals the truth. It confirms the facts. It doesn’t judge, make assumptions, or discriminate. These are things humans choose to do, depending on how we feel about other ethnicities and cultures that are different from our own. Luckily, most of my new family members who do not identify as African American are excited about our connection and want to learn more about our South Carolina ancestors. However, there are a few people who would rather not acknowledge our connection. One woman denies having any knowledge of our common ancestry despite the fact that my maternal great grandfather’s nephew, and the nephew’s wife and children, all identified as "Mulattoes" on census records, are clearly documented in the woman’s public family tree, along with fallen Confederate soldiers, slaveholders, President Lincoln, and other European ancestors.
A few new cousins are looking for their biological parents and some, who were adopted by other loving parents, are simply hoping to find clues to their families' medical histories. Still, others are only learning the truth about their adoptions-legal or otherwise- since taking the DNA test, and they are dealing with the aftermath of their discoveries. That can be a pretty tough truth to handle.
I also use my DNA results to get to the truth about my family’s lineage. Most of what I know, prior to testing, has been passed down through oral history.
Here are a few stories about my family that I have verified or debunked with DNA.
• My paternal Campbell great-grandmother was part Native American (False). In reality, my great-grandmother, Ella Burroughs Campbell, was biracial, but not Native American. Her mother was of African and European descent, and her father was of African descent. My family even shared the same story told by thousands of other African American families who have come through the legacy of slavery, right down to the description of the supposed partly-Native American grandmother. “Her hair was so long she could sit on it!” These stories were concocted to hide hundreds of years of sexual assault perpetrated against enslaved women and African American women during the Jim Crow era by white men. They were meant to explain and protect the babies who resulted from these assaults. Many of my white family members have the courage to own this truth. They are empathetic and sometimes sorrowful about how we became connected. They quickly speak truth to power and acknowledge our kinship, and they welcome me into their families without hesitation. Many desire to be a real family – extending family reunion invitations, dinner invitations, and all. Their acceptance of me has put them at odds with some of their white relatives, who despite the conclusive DNA evidence, attempt to shame them for not being loyal to dead ancestors and the myth of a pure race. Their desire to connect to their new black family members- discovered through DNA- also leads to rejection, as they are held accountable by some for their ancestors’ horrific deeds.
• My other paternal Rhames grandmother was part Native American. (True)
My DNA has trace amounts of Native American genetic material. I believe this connection is from my paternal great-grandmother, Ella Prince Rhames, who was born and raised in Clarendon County, South Carolina. My father first told me of her Native connection, and in all of my research, I’ve found she is most likely related to the Tuscarora tribe that lived in close vicinity to Clarendon County, South Carolina. This is still speculation since the DNA test does not tell me which specific tribe I am biologically connected to. The Tuscarora, one of the five Native American Nations officially adopted many black families into their tribes in North and South Carolina before the Civil War. These families are referred to as “Black Tuscarora.” My African American Manning family, from Clarendon and Sumter counties in South Carolina, are officially named on record as a part of the Tuscarora tribe.
• My family is connected to Civil Rights and Women’s Rights Activist, Educator, and College Founder Mary McLeod Bethune (True).
While I do have biological Bethune family members from South Carolina, I am not descended from Mary McLeod Bethune. However, I am definitely connected by family. My great-grandmother, Ella Prince Rhames, had a brother named Eli Prince, who was married to Mary Magdalene Durant. Mary’s uncle, Daniel Bethune and his wife, Mary Jackson Bethune, are the parents of Albertus Bethune. Albertus was the husband of Mary McLeod Bethune and the father of their son, Albert Bethune.
• All biracial people have light skin (False).
DNA does determine skin color, just not in the way we think it does. In the late 80s, we all probably watched waaaayyyy too many episodes of the Jerry Springer Show where children’s biological connections to their families were disputed because of the lightness or darkness of their complexions. I am aware of some African Americans family members with darkly-hued skin who have much higher percentages of European DNA than lighter-skinned family members whose European DNA, along with Native American DNA, account for their lighter skin tones. Remember that within 1 family with multiple children, [those] children receive different amounts of biological material from each parent, and no two are alike. While all of the children’s genetic materials may come from the exact same regions, the amount of genetic materials they possess from ancestors from those regions may differ greatly.
During his appearance on Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s show African American Lives 2, celebrity radio host Tom Joyner discovered that the light colored eyes, which only he has in his family, is a genetic trait inherited from his ancestors' white slaveholder. Discovering the truth of his unique inherited traits was difficult for him to hear, but it brought closure to years of questions and insecurity about his appearance.
The truth is important. How we process and handle the biological facts we learn from DNA testing depends on what we believe and the capacity to forgive when the DNA results do not align with what we thought we knew about ourselves and our families. Some people will never seek out the truth, and that’s okay too, but they must respect the choices by those who are closest to them when they muster the courage to discover their own truths.