“You are who you are based on the DNA God chose to give you. He used your parents, and their ancestors to code you the way He wanted to.”
Pastor Wayne Farris spoke these words on the day before my DNA and health kit results came back last year. Everything I had watched and read warned me to be prepared for a range of emotions when I got back the results of my DNA test from 23andMe, (many of which they said would not be pleasant). When I sent in my saliva sample, I prepared myself for the unknown as best I could. Still I wasn’t ready for how I’d feel when I read the results.
My results stated that I am predominantly Nigerian and Ghanaian. The rest of my make up is European and Native American. There’s something special about knowing exactly which country you came from!
My first reaction was two-fold anger: (1) at the system of slavery, and (2) that there is so much European blood in my veins. I didn’t expect to be angry. It lasted for weeks. Even now, a year later, when I go into the app to check if new relatives are being added, I see red every time someone who is 99.9% European shows up as a distant relative. They show up as living in mostly Southern states of the US, but many live in England and Ireland. I wonder what they think when they see Black people like me in their list of relatives? It would make me deliriously happy if it were a beautiful love story that originally made us relatives; but I know that the likelihood of that being the case is very slim. The more likely story is one tied to the ugliness of slavery.
I am still angry that my ancestors were ripped from their lands. Reading these results over and over, I felt renewed pain at the thought of their brutal crossing of the Atlantic. I am angry at the people who captured them, bought them, traded and mistreated them, raped and impregnated them. I still can never bring myself to watch Twelve Years a Slave, or Roots. The emotional generational memory is just too much for me.
The ‘divide and conquer’ tactic used by the colonial enslavers was so effective that it has trickled down to this very generation. How they have caused us, by their words, attitudes, and actions, insinuations, threats, and punishments, to look down on the varying degrees of melanin in our skin, the textures of our hair, our countries of origin! Often we have been gullible to believe the lies they told us, in this part of the world we didn’t choose, but where we have had to learn to adapt to survive!
Since receiving my results, I’ve felt enormous gratitude for the Belizean culture I grew up in because we’ve somehow managed to hold on to a lot of things African; and I’ve questioned many of the stereotypes I grew up with, wondering how colonialism colored the truth of things, and how much there is that we don’t know because his-story covered up truth.
I grieved that because of slavery I am not intimately familiar with the cultures of my ancestors. Now I understand why I love Nigerian dances and follow them on social media. Even before I received my results, the dance accounts and hashtags I followed on Instagram were all Nigerian. If ever a dance video would stop me in my scrolling tracks, it would more than likely be something Nigerian. The results of my DNA test were a surprise, but they weren’t really a surprise.
I also felt shame. Even the way we see our blackness and our countries of origin was affected by colonization. I knew it in my head as I kept the new knowledge to myself for a few days, but I couldn’t shake the emotions. I kept thinking, ‘Of all the countries in Africa, why Nigeria?’ I knew there was no basis to feel shame about that being who I am. I soon realized that the shame I felt came from generations of descendants of the enslaved being taught to look down on blackness and origin.
This has been a ‘faith’ issue for me, but not a crisis of faith. It’s been more a matter of lining up God’s sovereignty with how we got here, to this part of the world. My belief in Jesus tells me to not allow my circumstances to determine how I respond to life and people. So I am working on forgiving those ancestors of mine who took part in the slave trade. Their DNA is part of me, and I don’t want to hate myself because my African percentage isn’t higher. I find some answers in the words of Joseph, himself a former slave, “You meant evil against me, but God used it for good”, Genesis 50:20 (ESV).
Another verse I’ve pondered as I’ve worked through my emotions is Isaiah 46:11b, “(I summon) from a far-off land, a man to fulfill my purpose.” (NIV). In my own life, people from different far off lands have influenced and taught me, so I always assumed that this verse refers only to good people; but as I grieve through and emotionally process my DNA results, it’s crossed my mind that this might not only be talking about good people; it could also be about evil people.
Then there is this: Acts 17: 26 (NKJV), “And He has …determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings”. I love the land of my birth, Belize. Creator God used my parents’ DNA to form me in that place. He set those boundaries for me. Do I understand any of it? Nope! So like Paul I say, “now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.’ (1 Cor 13:12. NIV).
I don’t understand why some of our ancestors had to go through what they did, and why others of them did what they did, for us to be here; but here we are. As I read the numbers that show my DNA composition, I embrace the African and the Native American in me, but I continue to struggle with the European part of me. I wish I could say that I have it all figured out and that I am already on the other side of it, but I can’t. There’s the dual work of forgiveness and acceptance that I am still trying to get done.
I believe in reparations for the damage and loss caused by the horrible institution of slavery, but one thing my results show me is that God worked with the DNA available and formed us, descendants of the enslaved, the way He wanted to. My DNA results explain some things, cement some things, but most of all, they settle in me the faith that God will make good out of any situation; that I am special to Him because I am His creation.
‘Post traumatic slave syndrome’ and ‘cultural trauma’ are a couple of terms that are new to me, but explain the thing I have known for years exists inside me. I didn’t dissect it before because I just accepted it as part of who I am; but in conversations with other Black women I’ve seen this psychological unsettledness manifest in how we all handle Black issues differently. We’ve not been in therapy for this trauma, but we know it’s there.
I am a born again Christian; have been for nineteen years. I love God – the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit. He already knows everything I feel on this matter of my DNA, (anger, sadness, grief, and gratitude for Belize). I’ve been in lengthy communication with Him about the messiness of it all, and truth be told, I am still not where I would want to be with all of this. It is a struggle to come to terms with the evil that took place so that I could be here.
Also true is that I don’t want to stay here, stuck in this place. And so I continue the work of talking and praying it through, with the hope of one day getting on the other side of the issue of my origins where I can accept all of my DNA, despising none of it. Seeing how my DNA breaks down has given me so much self-appreciation and self-acceptance so that the person who looks back at me in the mirror looks more like me than ever before.
Copyright © Debbie Mendoza July 2021