|Mapping National Geographic’s “Genographic Project”
Marissa: I hate the census. It is one of the most racially depressing documents I have ever encountered, and one of the current sources of my personal identity crisis. This idea that all of humanity can be segregated into seven easy categories seems outrageously flawed, stubborn and oblivious to an entire world peopled by miscegenation. Race has never been an absolute for me, and my soul revolts when I see it portrayed it as a cold, stoic, inflexible classification. My family is living proof of that lie.
(Family Reunion ambi: about 1 minute under track)
A few weeks ago, I went to my family reunion in Atlanta. There are so many skin colors, hair textures, facial shapes and eye colors. Native American blood lingers on both sides of my family, but especially on my mother's side. You can always tell by the hair: long, dark and thick. Almond shaped eyes, in varying shades of green, blue, and gray- but mostly dark, dark, brown.
"We have quite a mixture in the family which is Irish, English Scottish, American Indian, Creole and African American. So, with that mixture in mind, it's quite an interesting lineage, to say the least."
My mother, Maria LaDonne Harris.
Maria: "We are who we are. And we have to deal with that. That we happen to be a family that is racially mixed. With not just one or two races, but a number of races, and that's as you said, quite obvious when you look at our family."
I've been told that I'm directly descended from Alexander Graham Bell's illegitimate slave son. There's supposedly a Confederate Captain lurking in my mother's family tree. That living family members can legitimately claim membership to several Native American tribes. This was the gossip of dark country nights, and as far back as I can remember, I've never been certain about my race.
So, I decided to find out. When my best friend told me about the National Geographic Society's "Genographic Project," I jumped at chance to blast through conjecture and lore and find hard facts about my cultural lineage. The Genographic Project is an ambitious study chronicling mankind's migration across the planet from common African ancestors who lived eons ago. Technically, all humans are cousins, but I want to find out exactly where I fall on our genological family tree. And more importantly, which roots I can call my own.
(Cheek scraping ambi: opening wrapper)
I submitted a DNA sample, a cheek swab.
"It's really like combing your cheek"
My sample will be analyzed for genetic markers that tie me to one or several indigenous cultures and their many factions.
" Alright. Now we put it in the vial...(snap) and that's it"
Now we wait. The results won't tell me much about recent ancestors, but it will tell me about my ancestors ten thousand years ago- where they lived and where they migrated. It's not much, but it's something solid.
I do know that both sides of my family descend from a long line of quadroons, Creoles, mulattoes, mestizoes, and several Europeans. That makes me vaguely African, etcetera, etcetera. I have crinkly "nether-hair" that rejects most beauty products. My skin is neither light nor dark. It's dusky. Carmel when I'm tanned. "Other" is the box I usually pick on the Census, on job applications, on the LSAT.
Choosing the "other" box allows a fluidity between the different parts of my heritage, and crucial flexibility in words I use to describe them. Unfortunately, I never know what to write, or whether I should write anything at all. The temptation to become racially anonymous still seduces me every now and then. After all, there are no transparent people; we are all people of color. But I am not a coward, and if I must be "other" then I will know what "other" means for me, and the implications it carries with it. This project seeks to expand our racial understanding by placing us in the context of mankind's journey throughout time and space. Not to typify people based on looks alone. And that, for me, has made all the difference.
Three weeks later, I'm still waiting for the results. I don't know how they'll change me, or even if they will. But knowing yourself is the difference between a life lost and a life richly lived. This process has taught me that the science doesn't matter as much as the sense of empowerment that I've gained from the knowledge itself. And in the end, it is knowledge that endures.
For NPR's Intern Edition, I'm Marissa Harris.