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Artist, Teacher, Blogger concerned with American culture, its effect on faith and how Christianity effects American culture, specifically, what the word "christian" means to Americans today.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

What is "Black"?

A while back, I was having a conversation with a co-worker.  We were discussing ethnicity... he being Jewish and me being African American, and when I mention to him that I had other blood besides African, he looked at me and said somewhat dismissively, "Felicia, you're Black" as if that were the sum total of my existence... as if he somehow knew exactly what that meant.  I as an African American don't completely know what that means and it is not the same experience for every American of African descent.  Personally, I don't think there is one definitive answer, but a colllection of answers based on an individual's African ancestry, what part of this country their family is from, their socio-economic background and what community influences, and not just Black, have taken root in their family.  Did you grow up in an homogeneous environment?  Did you grow up Protestant or Catholic or Budhist or Muslim or Atheist?  How political was your family?  Was race a topic of conversation or was it just that unmentionable thing you dealt with individually, but didn't dare acknowledge, in an attempt to be "just like everyone else".  

The reality is, as Americans of African descent, we're not "just like everyone else".  We're not even just like other African Americans because collectively, we are made up of such a large genetic pool.

I just recently got my DNA tested and was suprised to find out just how mixed I actually am.  According to Ancestry.com, I am 82% African and 18% White.  What I found interesting was how inconclusive the terms "African" and "White" really are.  


As you can see in my results above, "Africa" , or rather my Africa, is represented with a total of eight different countries.  All of which have different cultures and languages and customs and bloodlines with different biological and genetic traits. "Africa" is no more singularly Black than "Europe" is singularly White. And what I found here is just the tip of the iceberg.

I was referred by one of my new-found cousins, to another site called, GEDmatch, which takes the DNA results I got from Ancestry.com, and cross-references them with global DNA databases that are being compiled by researchers from around the world.  These databases are more specific to region and ethnicity, and gives a more specific view of where my DNA came from.




When  I uploaded my DNA to GEDmatch, I found that in addition to the eight African countries found by Ancestry.com, I can add North Africa, which could include any of the countries in the horn of Africa (the Omotic peoples) and Eastern Bantu, which may include Tanzania and/or Kenya.  

In short, I'm kind of a sampling of the continent of Africa... a mixture of many different countries and cultures... an African gumbo with the main flavor being West African, but definitely not limited to that region.  But is that what it means to be "Black" and is being "Black"the same as being "African" or  "African American"?  

As an American, with African and European ancestry, I think about this question alot.  Although I'm medium brown-skinned, I've never felt completely accecpted in the Black community.  When I say "Black", I mean a community of mostly African Americans. I've been called, oreo (black on the outside, white on the inside) wannabe, too proper (you'd think that was  compliment, but it really isn't), uppity and as a child, those terms were very hurtful.  I've always felt more comfortable in a more ethnically mixed environment.  I'm not saying that I wasn't called names there, it's just that I understood why... my difference was more obvious.When I was younger, this caused me to be socially awkward and as an adult, socially cautious.    I've always said that my phenotype doesn't display all that is in my genotype.   I never understood why some blacks found me so different... that is, until now... and I've only discussed my African ancestry.

People tend to forget that African-Americans, meaning the descendants of African slaves brought to this country by whites, are a very unique group of people.  Of course, other countries throughout the world bought African slaves, but few of them had  as diverse a mixature of other ethnicites as the United States.  In England, the Africans who did mix with whites, only had English and maybe some Scottish and Irish to mix with.  In France, they only had the French.  In Germany, Germans. In South and Central America, mostly Spanish and indigenious peoples.  But in the United States, there were English, Irish, Scottish, French, Dutch, German, Spanish, Native Americans and Jewish (I'm 2% Jewish). All these groups were involved in the slave trade (foreign and/or domestic) and all of these groups owned slaves here in the United States.

When I look at my European ancestry, my genetic portrait becomes even more complex.  In addition to the four main white groups found in my Ancestry.com DNA results, I can add peoples from the North Sea, Baltic, Eastern European, Western Mediterranean and Atlantic regions of the world




  Factor in Asia (yes I've got that too)




and this doesn't even include my archaic DNA, which includes ancient DNA from Siberia, Hungary and Montana (yes, North American) which would suggest Native American ancestry, but that doesn't show up in any of the other results... go figure!





After reviewing just MY OWN DNA, you can see why defining what "Black" is, for me anyway,  might be just a little more difficult than some might imagine... and more difficult for African Americans than blacks in other parts of the world.

Now back to the question I asked at the beginning of this post, "What is Black"?  For me, the answer is all of this.  I feel no need to ignore (I do lean toward some of it more than others... but that's just natural selection, right?) any of the DNA found here.  I've recognized traits from almost all of these groups, and had friends from many of these groups.  I have always considered myself multicultural and enjoyed learning about peoples from all over the world and have been blessed to go to school with people from many of these cultures from a very early age.  Now, I can contribute my ease and preference for dealing with people from other cultures to my DNA to some extent, but my personal reason has always been my faith.

I grew up Catholic in Chicago, IL in the 1970's and attended Catholic schools that were very ethnically diverse.  One school in particular, Holy Name Cathedral, I used to call the little UN.  In my 3rd grade class of 17, we had students from at least 6 other countries and all socio-economic backgrounds... from diplomat's kids to kids from the projects and I landed a little lower than middle.  We all kept up with current affairs, played the Eyewitness News game, and talked politics over lunch.  I was there for 3 years, from 3rd to 5th grade and of all the elementary schools I attended (a total of 5), Holy Name was my favorite.  As diverse as our backgrounds were, we all shared the same guiding principles... the tenets of Christianity... To love God with our whole heart, soul and being, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. [Matthew 22:37 & 39]  We didn't always get it right, but it was our standard... the bar we were expected to reach. It was not an option and I thank God for that... that experience and that bar because it has forever shaped the person I am today.

So maybe the better question me is "Who am I? This is a question I can answer a with greater certainty.  I'm an old Catholic school girl who grew up to be a Congregationalists woman... because my faith comes first.  I'm an American of African, European and Asian descent with global influences.  I'm a woman of color, an artist, writer and woman faith, who has shared my faith, prayed for, cried for and led many in a prayer to receive Jesus in their hearts.  I'm a believer... and that's more important to me than other label.  That is truly who I am.