Taking The TestPosted on November 5, 2016
Shortly after I discovered that my father was of African-Canadian ancestry (both his parents were African-Canadian) but had denied his black heritage and passed for white, and that therefore I was African-Canadian, my wife Merilyn gave me a gift: she presented me with a DNA test kit that would enable me to find out just how African-Canadian I was. The company promised me a percentage: I would learn if I was five percent, 10 percent, 25 percent. It also would tell me what part of Africa my ancestors were most likely to have been (taken) from. I would be able to retrace the route my genetic forebears had taken from Africa to America and eventually to Canada. The kit contained a cotton swab, which I was to rub between my teeth and gums, seal in a plastic bag, and send back to them.
I sent in the swab and waited. In due course, I received an email with a hyperlink to the company’s website, where, upon registering, I would be given the information I had requested.
I have never gone to that website.
For a long time I tried to explain to myself and to Merilyn why I have not followed up on the test results. For a while, I said I didn’t want to have another username and password to remember, that the company could have sent me the results in the email instead of making me register my personal information on yet another database. Even I had to admit that that was a pretty lame excuse. In my more curmudgeonly moments, I said I didn’t want to be on an a list containing the names of other people with genetic codes that matched mine, who may or may not be related to me, and who almost certainly would begin sending me emails asking who my great-great-grandfather Leason married in Spencer, Indiana, in 1845.
In the end, I had to confess to both of us that going to that website was just something I could not bring myself to do. I simply wasn’t interested in knowing how black I was.
However, after reading an article in a recent issue of the New Yorker, I think I have reached a tentative understanding of my reluctance to know the precise details of my genetic inheritance. In the article, entitled “White Writers,” American novelist and playwright Sarah Shulman (The Cosmopolitans, 2016; Carson McCullers, 2006) asks how it was that Carson McCullers, a white novelist from the American South, could so “easily” have created authentic black characters in her fiction, characters miraculously free of the white filter through which so many white writers, especially Southern writers, view their black characters. In reviewing The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940), Richard Wright wrote McCullers exhibited “the astonishing humanity that enables a white writer, for the first time in Southern fiction, to handle Negro characters with as much ease and justice as those of her own race.” What white writer today would not love to have such – I was going to say permission, but let us for now call it encouragement – to continue to create characters that do not come from his or her own particular racial and social background.
Sarah Shulman herself was not so lucky. She writes that when her 1998 novel Shimmer was published, she was proud of the research and listening that had allowed her to enter what she calls “the room of black people where no white person is present,” and to write about blacks with authenticity and understanding. She then recounts a conversation she had with black novelist Jacqueline Woodson, who pointed to a scene in Shimmer in which a black character is surprised by her discovery that her beloved grandfather was once married to a white woman. “Jackie explained,” writes Shulman, “that this concern about hidden racial mixing was a white anxiety….I had committed the error I most feared: putting white consciousness into the mind and mouth of a black character.”
So that was it: by taking the DNA test, I had been subscribing to a white-based concern about racial purity. Even though I was trying to determine that I was not racially pure, I was subscribing to the notion that such a thing as racial purity existed. And also, by a subtle extension, that it mattered.
Black Americans, Woodson was saying, know that the history of slavery is also the history of miscegenation, often forced miscegenation, which is another way of saying systemic, repeated rape. A black American whose ancestors were slaves almost certainly is not surprised to find a white ancestor somewhere in his or her (usually nonexistent) family tree. White Americans seem to have glossed over that detail, and maintain their own concept of racial purity. How, they don’t ask, can half a nation’s population be mixed and the other half not? Recent studies suggest that as many as 80 percent of America’s white population are at least 5 percent black. In other words, four out of five “white” Americans are like me, or like my father. Unless they have taken a DNA test, no “white” American can say with any more certainty than a “black” American that they are racially pure. But to take that DNA test is to say that racial purity exists, and that it matters.
Racial purity does matter, of course, but not in the way we think. For one thing, it is not an exclusively white concept. History has taught us that racial purity can be an issue in all-white populations (Germany, Armenia, South Africa) as well as in all-black populations (Uganda, Rwanda). Racial purity is a huge issue in the minds of those who think they have it. To subscribe to a concept of racial purity is to place a foot on the path to genocide. And that is a step that subconsciously, by not being curious about how black I was or wasn’t, I have not cared to take.