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Black Like … Me?

In which I discover that one of my ancestors was a slave
dehillerin copy

So, I sent a DNA sample to 23andMe to find out my genetic ancestry. The results came back this morning:

My genetic profile. Light blue is Northwestern European.

Mostly unsurprising. I’m 99.3 percent European. About 67 percent of that ancestry is Anglo-Irish, with 9 percent “French and German” (they can’t yet distinguish between French and German ancestry, so my ancestors came from that region; it’s got to be German, because the first Dreher to come to the US came from Germany; Dreher is a German name meaning “turner”), and 4 percent Scandinavian. The rest is “broadly Northwestern European”.

But here’s the surprising part: 0.6 percent of my ancestry — the thin red slice — is West African. The genetics timeline indicates that five to eight generations ago (the test can’t be more specific), I had an ancestor who was 100 percent West African. That ancestor was likely born between 1700 and 1820. That means he or she was a slave. Because African slave males did not generally mate with European females, that means that my African ancestor was almost certainly female. So, great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandmother was probably a slave woman.

Say it loud, I’m black and I’m proud! Heh.

I’m guessing that that woman’s child passed as white, and married a white person, and that couple’s children married whites, and on and on.

(The test also found that a little farther back on the family tree, I have an ancestor who was 100 percent Native American. Given the time line, this probably means that one of my European ancestors during colonial days married a Native American woman, as happened back then given the relative shortage of European women in North America at that time.)

This is amazing information. Focusing on the slave ancestor, this means that under the so-called “one drop rule” that was the law in some Southern states in Jim Crow times, I and my children would have been considered black, and subjected to segregation and persecution. Of course it’s highly unlikely that anyone would have known, not even us back then. Our physical appearance is, um, very white. But had genetic testing been around at that time, and had my ancestors been subject to it, the state would have learned that despite the whiteness of their skin, some of them were black, according to the law, and treated them unjustly.

I don’t know if my slave ancestor descends from my maternal or paternal line. My father is dead, but my mother is alive. I hope she will do the 23andme test to see what her ancestry is. That will tell me which line my African grandparent came from. Still, it’s almost certain that some of my ancestors fought a war whose goal in large part was to keep descendants of other ancestors enslaved. Genetically speaking, the story of the African slaves in North America is my story and my children’s story, too. And somewhere in this country, I may have black distant cousins alive today.

America, man.

Have you had your ancestral DNA profiled? If so, were there any surprises?

My genetic ancestry, according to 23andMe

Of course there’s no way to prove that my West African ancestor was a slave. It seems the most likely explanation given the time period in which West African DNA entered my line. But really, I don’t know.



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