I’ve always been intrigued with learning as much as I can about my family’s heritage. Growing up, I longed to know the names of those who came before me. But in so many communities of color, especially Black communities, tracing your ancestral line can be difficult and sometimes near impossible. Our names were erased. Historically, censuses did not include people of color in the same way it recognized caucasian people. So, the paper trail can become quite challenging to follow, creating chasms within ancestral lines. And even when I can trace my lineage, I’ve come across severed roots that need healing. In trying to discover more about the people whose collective lives enabled my own, I learned more about the social construct of race. Race is often considered an identifier, a stable truth, a fixed mark that cannot be moved or altered. But in reading about my family heritage, I’ve also seen that race is just the opposite of what we’ve always been told. It is flimsy and changeable; it can be distorted by those in authority to keep people isolated and power-hoarded.
In 1901, a group of my ancestors was identified by the US government as “Mulatto.” The term has its own nuanced and derogatory history, and it is meant to signify an individual who is both Black and white. Around this time, my ancestral family applied to be recognized as members of the Choctaw Nation (one of “The Five Civilized Tribes”) and were interviewed by the Office of the Commissioner. Though the language in these documents is prejudiced toward Native Americans and Black people, I’m grateful to hold them in my hands. These interviews have brought to life the voices of people I’ll never know. Reading them is like sitting across the table from someone I’ve longed to know. I can finally hear the distinct cadence of their voices, the unique way that words flowed from their being.
In these documents, my ancestors were asked about their connection to the Choctaw tribe. The family matriarch claimed descent from Native Americans who, following the “Dancing Rabbit Creek” treaty, were removed from their homes and relocated to Mississippi. Their answers about their heritage are vivid and full of description. They give an account of fathers and grandfathers from the 1800s who were “full-blooded Choctaw” and spoke the language. They talk of mothers with Black, Irish and Native heritage. It is not easy to read because I already know the outcome of these interviews: every single one of them received an official letter effectively stamping out their hope for rights to Choctaw land and to claim a heritage that belonged to them with one word sprawled across their papers: rejected.
Not long after this, the official characterization of their race was changed, too. In the censuses I found, sometime after these interviews, now they were labeled as Black. It’s more evidence that race is only that — a label. It is something chosen for you. It’s not real. The ancestral roots from which you grow, however, the culture you create and carry with you — that is real and unshakable.
What struck me, too, was the fact that my ancestral family’s race was changed in order to limit what they could claim was rightfully, lawfully theirs. Before receiving these papers, I’ll admit I had doubts. I wondered if my ancestors had gotten their heritage wrong. Perhaps it was a family myth.
And then my 90-year-old grandmother had a DNA test to determine her one-of-a-kind genetic makeup.
As a family, we discovered that our ancestral roots span the globe. In no particular order, we are from Togo, the Congo, the Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Senegal, Mali, north Africa and southwestern Africa, and we are from Britain, Ireland, Finland and elsewhere in Eastern and Western Europe and Central Asia. And there is Native American in our DNA as well.
Race is not as impervious as some would like us to believe. It was originally formed to create divides and to establish and preserve power structures. In tracing my family history, I’ve seen the truth in this. Race has long been used to deny people entry into public spaces, to educational facilities and to achieving full social citizenship. And in learning about my family history, I see that it can easily be altered to deny people entry into their own heritage. My ancestors and so many others didn’t have the opportunity to say this, but I can. Our ancestry is like a fingerprint — it is unlike anyone else’s. Heritage is more than a label. It cannot be chosen or changed. Unlike the social construct of race, which binds people, heritage gives freedom — the freedom to understand your roots and history. Entry to this heritage cannot — and should not — be denied to us.