Many years ago, I went to my son’s back to school night. Typical stuff.
In preparation for the evening, each of the first-graders was to draw their family. And in doing so, she told them to pick the colors that reflected reflect the ethnicity of themselves and their family. And, by way of explanation, she said the she was black.
His teacher was a lovely, albeit rather strict, Bhajan woman.
In truth, she was very light brown. And this was a very white town on a barrier Island on the east-coast of Florida. As I recall it, there were no other black students in the class, perhaps there were a couple of Asians and Hispanics.
My son took to the task with great passion, according to the teacher. And after seeing his work, but before I saw it, she wanted to explain the assignment.
Fast forward nearly two decades. I paid the Mormon Church $79 and sent a tube of saliva off to AncestryDNA. I have always been a bit curious about my rather ambiguous ethnicity. My father was born near Khartoum, Sudan, part of the Sephardic diaspora who had migrated south from Egypt. My mother was born in Durban, South Africa, to a Colonial British couple, and grew up near Nairobi, Kenya.
They met in London in 1963. In 1965, from a strange brew of genetic material, I was born. With Black hair and brown eyes, I always browned in the sun. And when my son was was in first grade, living in Florida, I was particularly dark. Certainly much darker than his teacher.
On that evening, she escorted me to my son’s desk. Sitting on the desktop was his family portrait. The heads were plotted on the page, based on height. As the youngest, he was the smallest, standing on the edge of the family, holding his brother’s hand, who in-turn was holding his sister’s hand, who was holding their step-mother’s hand, who was holding my hand.
I have long since lost that picture though I wish I still had it. But, as
I recall, if you followed the heads, each was a lightly filled in pink, or yellow or tan. No one was the same. And then me. I was black. Crayola black and filled with great force.
I smiled and may have even laughed out loud. I appreciated his perspective and it certainly played into my ambiguous ethnic identity. I asked him why I was black.
“Well,” he said. “If <my teacher> is black, then you must really be black.”
I have reflected on his drawing many times over the years as this country and the world struggles with the mixing of peoples and cultures. At that time, to my son, I was a black man. I certainly didn’t care.
In fact, I have always had a vague notion that somewhere on my father’s side there was some African blood. So I dropped my saliva in the post and waited.
Four weeks later, the results came back: In my tangle chromosomes there was nothing, not even trace DNA, from Africa. Yes. I was disappointed. It was from my father that I expected some curious results and all his genetics could offer was Italian and Greek and Middle Eastern. There was Western European stuff that could have come from either one of my parents.
But wait, only four percent of my DNA traced back to Great Britain. But my mum and her family are English, surely. My mum’s parents very much so. Instead, lingering like a sore thumb: 12 percent Irish. Really, yes, Irish. That did not come from my old man. And that means mum is one quarter Irish.
All along I had misread my son’s picture of me. Not black, but black Irish?Maybe there is Africa in me through mum. Maybe there is a Moorish sailor among my ancestors.