Like almost all African Americans, I have white ancestry. That’s not a surprise; it’s a legacy of slavery. For many African Americans, those white ancestors can’t be named (as is my case, though not for lack of trying). Relations between male slave owners and their female slaves weren’t generally advertised; anonymity is another legacy of slavery.
My secret lies in my DNA. There’s a DNA test called an admixture test, which measures an individual’s percentages of European, sub-Saharan African, and Asian/Native American DNA back to about the time of Columbus. According to this test, the average African American is 24 percent European—in other words, mostly African. (Despite the persistent family myths of Cherokee great-grandmothers, very few African Americans have any discernible Native DNA.) My admixture reveals something about me not evident to the eye, not present in the paper trail. It’s something only science can see. My percentages of European and sub-Saharan African DNA are almost exactly equal. DNA tells me I’m as white as I am black. Society, however, has something else to say.
What I’ve learned through hosting my genealogy series on PBS, Finding Your Roots, is that most of us know precious little about our ancestors. If there’s any way that the American people are monolithic, regardless of their backgrounds, it’s in their secretiveness. From African American guests, Ashkenazi Jewish guests, guests of Irish and Italian and Chinese descent, I hear variations on the same line again and again: “Why didn’t anyone tell me?” “I never heard that.” “I asked, but they didn’t answer.” The actor Aziz Ansari was shocked by what had been kept from him. “I’m telling you, man, these people don’t talk!”
Sometimes the pain of remembering a traumatic past—one of slavery or of pogroms, of poverty or abandonment or illegitimacy—might be unbearable if put into words. I can only assume that some family stories are swept under the rug out of embarrassment or a sense of shame. Just as the roots of a plant are often hidden out of sight, deep underground, and reached only through copious digging, in genealogy, sometimes we get our hands dirty, too. Slave owners on the family tree don’t always get a seat at the table, and many of my white guests have been known to brace themselves before they meet with me. Maybe people who have a painful past simply prefer the present. As I told the actor Christopher Walken, whose…