When I was a little boy, I didn’t know my grandparents on my father’s side: they had both died when my father was twelve, and no one ever spoke about them. I had a lot of cousins, but I always felt disconnected from my family. When I heard other people talking about feeling close to their relatives, I never had much of a sense of anything like that for me, which led me to a feeling of loneliness and isolation.
During the pandemic, I had time to reflect on all this. “What would it be like,” I thought to myself, “if I did have relatives I felt close to? What would it be like if I knew something about my people who had come before me, each of whom had played a part in getting me here?”
These reflections led me to two things. First, as an accountant, I did what accountants do, I ran some numbers. And second, I took a DNA test.
Running the Numbers.
I have a mother and a father; that’s two people. If I now add in their parents, there are six people who came before me. Add in my great grandparents, and we’re up to fourteen. One more generation, and there are now thirty people who I represent. “How far would we need to go back,” I asked myself, “for this to be meaningful?”
As far as I knew at that time, I am an African American, descended from slaves on both my mother and father’s side. So I decided to go back thirteen generations, or almost 400 years, to people born at the beginning of the 17th century. This was the time when my Nigerian ancestors’ lives were disrupted, and they were brought to America under force. I could have gone back seven generations, as is common in the Native American traditions, which would have yielded 254 ancestors. If I had gone back 25 generations, the number would be more than 67 million, much more than the population of Nigeria at that time. But thirteen generations, back to the time when slaves were brought over from Africa, seemed about right.
So now, I realized, I’m not just representing my own trajectory here on this planet, I’m representing 16,383 people. As I contemplated this, I realized that this is true for absolutely everybody. Every single person on this planet is not just representing their own needs and legacy, but also the thousands who have gone before them.
Imagine a member of Congress, in the House of Representatives or the Senate. If one constituent booked an appointment to discuss some grievance about some issue, the significance will be relatively small. It’s just the needs of one person, among so many others. However, if someone was to approach a member of Congress representing the interests of sixteen thousand people, the significance would be much greater, it becomes a big deal, and worthy of more attention and care.
That is what is actually true, I realized, with everyone I meet. For example, it is so easy to walk past a homeless person on the street, and to just smell the alcohol and body odor and to see the tattered clothing. But just a little curiosity would reveal that this human being, down on their luck, also is someone’s child and grandchild, and also represents 16,000 people.
Each and every person represents the hopes and dreams of many. They represent an expectation of a privileged legacy or the faith that their offspring will experience a better life.
As soon as I see anyone in this way, they become much more significant.
23 and Me
The other step that I took during the pandemic was to send my saliva off to 23 and Me. Up until I did a DNA test, I just knew that I am 100% the descendent of African slaves, and therefore I am not White, or Hispanic, or Asian or Indian. I am Black, and therefore not White. Those are “other people,” different from me. Historically they were the oppressors, my people were the oppressed.
When I got the test results back, they were both shocking and confusing. Sure enough, I discovered that I am 87% from African countries (42% Nigerian, 25% from Cameroon, 8% from Chemin, 6% Mali, 5% from the Ivory Coast and 1% from Senegal). But I also discovered that my DNA carries 4% from Wales, 2% from Norway, 2% from Scotland, 1% from Sweden, and 1% from England. That’s 11% of my 16,382 ancestors are Northern European. Who were those 1,802 people? In order for white people to procreate with blacks back then, it was almost certainly a slave owner raping a black slave woman.
Notably, one of my ancestors is Robert King Carter, who was the governor of Virginia from 1727 to 1732. There is no record that he ever married a black woman, which means he f*ck*d a slave, and then dismissed her. So, I discovered, to my shock, that my DNA carries the energy not only of the oppressed, but also of the oppressor.
That changes everything. As a black man, the forces of oppression I am trying to oppose are actually right here in my body.
This entire process has been extremely hard for me. My lineage is much more complex than I thought. As long as I thought of myself as just black, things were very simple. I’ve spent my whole life thinking that I represent the poor people who got f**ked over. But I also carry the lineage of the people who f**ked them as well.
What am I going to do with that?
It is much more difficult for me to represent the legacy of Robert King Carter than it is for me to represent the slave girl he f**ked. Now I need to live with the complex reality that I contain both the oppressed and the oppressor: I carry the lineage of resentment for having been wronged, but also the shame and guilt for having wronged others, as well as the disposition of not giving a sh*t about any of it. I contain multitudes.
This is an uncomfortable truth, which is highly disorienting to me.
We tend to pigeonhole people in life, don’t we? If you are Black, you are not White. If you’re Asian you are not Indian, or South American. We need to put people into convenient boxes. If you are gay, you’re not straight, if you’re a Democrat, you’re not Republican, if you’re vegan you are never seen at Mcdonalds.
In fact, I’m coming to recognize, we all contain everyone.
The other thing I discovered, from looking at the numbers as well as my DNA, is the extreme unlikelihood of me being created — the way that I am — at all. It took all those eight thousand sex acts for me to be conceived. Although many of these moments of conception may have been loving and deliberate, some of them may have been random meetings. For example, a rape, or an encounter with a prostitute in a brothel, could depend upon split second timing, in order for conception to occur. If someone had arrived literally one minute later or earlier, sex would not have happened, and I would not exist with the identity I have. This is true eight thousand times. It means that your existence, and everyone’s existence, is a kind of a miracle. It is dependent upon thousands and thousands of random events happening perfectly, it requires every single one of those pregnancies to come to term perfectly.
Racism and prejudice is to deny the randomness of our genetic makeup. It is to neglect our own seeds of the pain of disconnection, and instead to focus on how we are different from others.
Just like you, just like everybody, I contain multitudes. I contain murderers, rapists and thieves, as well as their victims, I contain artists and farmers, governors and their slaves. I contain the oppressed and the oppressor. I contain every facet of humanity.
And… in that recognition, I’m discovering the seeds of real and authentic compassion.