I Took A DNA Test To Find Out My Racial Heritage

It's much harder to trace a black person’s heritage back to Africa or elsewhere before slavery.
Publish date:
August 4, 2014
race, African American, DNA, Heritage, dna testing, ancestors, racial heritage

There are many circumstances in which a person would want to take a DNA test to find out their racial heritage. The person could be adopted, or not know who their father is. Maybe they look racially ambiguous.

I took one because I'm black.

I have always been quite curious about my racial heritage since I realized my ancestry probably includes more than African descent. It was around middle school when other black kids asked me “are you mixed?” It was a weird question to me since I had never even thought of it before.

“Both of my parents are black,” I would answer and they usually accepted that.

Then when I later became more curious about my heritage I began asking my mom questions. I was so envious of other people (mostly white people that I knew) who can easily rattle off what makes up their heritage. They knew which relative boarded a ship to come America to find better opportunities. They had an idea what kind of culture their ancestors had before coming to America. If they didn’t they also had the privilege of using ancestry websites or the database at Ellis Island to find some kind of clues.

I didn’t have that, but I was obsessed with finding something.

See, my mom’s side was more of a mystery because she is light-skinned and her hair has looser curls than I do. My mom knew that her mother was biracial, but she wasn’t sure what other race she was other than black. The answer many people in our family would give was unsurprisingly Native American.

One reason was that my maternal grandmother hated getting her picture taken. If someone took her picture and she found it, she would burn it. To this day I have no clue what she looked like since she died when my mother was 14. Another reason is black people from my experience, will claim being mixed with Native American ancestry before anything else. I’m not sure why this is. I have heard someone explain that it’s because having white ancestry due to your ancestors being raped by their slave masters is something to be ashamed of back then. So some may have decided to cover this fact up by claiming Native American ancestry.

Either way many black people can be confused of their racial heritage. Slave masters would split up families of their slaves with little to no record so it’s much harder to trace a black person’s heritage back to Africa or else where before slavery.

The farthest my mom got with using one of those ancestry search websites was finding an ancestor named Pierre Peterson who is listed as mulatto. He boarded a ship called the Magnolia that went from Le Havre, France to New Orleans in 1845 which later became the home for many of my family members. To this day my mother and I still make trips to Louisiana for Thanksgiving.

This wasn’t enough for me though. I needed to know more. What was Pierre doing in France? If he was mulatto then he was also something other than African descent, so what gives?

At times I felt guilty about my curiosity about my racial heritage. Every time I would sling a set of questions to my mother she would ask why I wanted to know so badly. After all, I’m a black woman and that’s how the world will usually categorize me no matter what. But there was something so frustrating to me that there is information that was taken from my family and was never retrieved due to terrible circumstances. I wanted to take that back.

Not only that, but I never got to meet my maternal grandmother. I wanted to know more about this woman who raised my mother. Although she wasn’t able to fill her role as her mother for long, she had such a huge influence on her. No, her race wasn’t the only thing that I cared about, but because it was such a huge mystery I wanted to discover it.

In college I took a life changing sociology class that focused on race. I learned many things like how you can’t really rely on a person’s physical features to tell what their race is. One thing that I will always remember is when my professor picked a few people to go up in front of the class. I was one of the students who was picked. A smaller group had to categorize all of us into which race they thought we belonged to. At the end we all had to say which race we were. In the “Asian” group, one girl said she was from Arizona. When the professor pressed her for a clearer answer she said she was Native American. Many people in the class of 300 students were amazed, including me.

I would have never guessed this woman was Native American just by looking at her. What part of my racial heritage am I not able to see by looking at the mirror? I wanted, almost needed to know.

My professor promised to offer DNA tests to students at the end of the semester to find out their racial heritage. I was so excited. Finally concrete answers! Well that never came because our class was behind in the curriculum, but I asked for the information to do it myself from the professor. There was no way that nugget was going to be waved in front of my face then taken from me.

That summer I ordered a DNA kit from 23andMe. I answered a few questions about my features with my mom.

“Do I have dimples?” I read the answer out loud.

“Nicole, you know you do,” said my mom appalled.

She was definitely confused by me asking her help, but I didn’t want to risk answering something wrong. I then gave them a sample of my saliva. In a few weeks I got the results in an email.

It turns out my maternal haplogroup or ancient family is L3e3b1. In English, my maternal line traces back to present day Mozambique. This revelation in itself was huge for me. I was taught that many black people were taken from the Northwest of Africa. Many of those countries speak French so that’s the language I took in high school and later minored in college, in hopes that I would visit one day and would be able to somehow connect with the culture.

Mozambicans speak Portuguese. I kind of felt like the world was laughing at me.

I also got an ancestry painting which broke down my ancestry even further. Turns out I am 69% African descent, 24% European, and 6% Asian (Chinese and Japanese). I couldn’t wait to tell everyone in my family. European was definitely my maternal mother’s other race. We have a picture of my maternal great-grandmother who had straight hair that is believed to be red. Also my mother’s maiden name is Kelly so we figured the European is Irish. My uncle later told me that she was disowned by her own family for marrying a black man.

We will probably never find out where the Chinese and Japanese came in. When I told my mother’s side of the family they all agreed that it was pretty cool, but they offered no clues as to which ancestor the DNA came from.

After finding out this information I experimented a little to better understand Mozambican culture. I looked up a Mozambican food recipe to cook and downloaded an app to learn Portuguese. But in the end I think I have come to a realization that I was looking for “my culture” as if I didn’t already have one which is wrong. I’m a black American which includes my family’s delicious Southern comfort food, beautiful R&B, jazz, and soul music, and even a twist on the English language that makes English majors cringe in dismay.

I was trying to fill a hole that was never there. I was focusing on the wrong thing.

I would definitely recommend other black people to take this DNA test if they are curious about their ancestry. But don’t use it as a way to replace or erase your cultural identity. It is terrible that so many of our ancestors were torn apart from their culture and it was later forgotten. It is however amazing how we as a people created a new one.

Now I’m just happy that I feel like I have a better understanding of who my maternal grandmother and great-grandmother was. How their experience on this Earth might have been different from mine because of their racial heritage. I definitely feel like I am satisfied with answers that I have that no longer makes the picture of my great-grandmother, or my own reflection a frustrating mystery to me.