I waited more than six weeks for the test results.
Using a few swabs from inside my cheek, researchers at African Ancestry matched the DNA I inherited from my mother to the “world’s largest database of African lineages” to determine the present-day African country and ethnic group with which I share maternal ancestry. African Ancestry is a pioneering, Black-owned, genetic ancestry tracing company for people of African descent.
“We found identical, 100% matches for you with the mtDNA of Mende people (of Sierra Leone),” the results letter from African Ancestry read. “This means that at some point in the 500 – 2,000-year history of your maternal lineage (mother to mother to mother’s), there was a Mende woman.”
Sierra Leone. Mende.
The only things I knew about Sierra Leone were “blood diamonds,” and a country constantly enveloped in civil war. This can’t be right. Indeed, I’m from Ghana, Nigeria, or Senegal – African countries with a reputation for Black excellence and a long and storied relationship to its African descendants in the diaspora.
I re-read the results letter from African Ancestry.
“Your statistical confidence measure, or Sequence Similarity Score, is 100%,” the letter stated. “Everyone on your entire maternal lineage, from the past and into the future, is Mende.”
Yeah-no. There’s no wiggle room there.
I am researching my ancestry through multiple DNA testing, documents research through Ancestry.com, and the guidance of an expert for my film, Return of the Black Madonna. In it, I am learning to swim, dive, and map sunken slave ships as a severe health diagnosis threatens the future of my family line.
Since I was a child, I have been “haunted” by visions of my ancestors. Sometimes, their presence is known to me during meditation. Snatches of their stories came to me in a dream or a piece of writing filled with sensory details of being captured and sold that I could have never, logically, known.
The presence of my ancestors has been more urgent in recent years, following the deaths of my grandparents, parents, and uncle in rapid succession. I have no siblings or children. The ancestors no longer want me to know that they exist. They want to be named. There is power in naming – gorgeous specificity that makes the universality of the human experience hauntingly real.
My embodied search for my ancestors expressed through learning to swim, dive, and map sunken slave ships and documented through my upcoming film and book come at a time when I’m struggling with what it means to be an American.
Like many Black people born in the United States, I have a problematic relationship with America. Its foundational documents promise “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Yet, centuries of laws even stretching to the present day have limited our economic, educational, health care, and housing opportunities.
Closer to our time, U.S. Congress recently declared Juneteenth a federal holiday to commemorate the emancipation of enslaved Africans in the United States. But it has become harder for Black people to vote in many states since last year’s elections. Many cities uphold militarized policing in Black and brown communities.
I have plenty of opportunities to barbecue throughout the summer, but I don’t have access to full participation in elections and safety in public spaces.
I am not ashamed of being American. Throughout the world, Black culture, my culture, defines “cool.” However, I have always known that my family’s story didn’t start and stop at the Charleston slave market, where my maternal ancestors were likely imported from Sierra Leone.
I am American. But within my American self contains a Mende woman from Sierra Leone. Wearing a “helmet mask” that depicts the feminine ideals of the Mende culture, the Mende woman inside of me beckons me to come closer – to sit still and learn.