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Connections | Magazine

What DNA can’t tell me about my Black ancestors

How did my European ancestors intermingle with my Black ancestors? Was it violent? Was it not? Will I ever know?

The writer at age 3, with her grandmother.
The writer at age 3, with her grandmother.from desire’ jackson-crosby

After engaging in African-American history for a few months in high school and embracing my roots as a young Black woman through my natural hair, I was ready for the answers about my genealogy that awaited me on my laptop screen. Seventeen-year-old me relayed the results of my AncestryDNA test to my sister, Brandi, in excitement and wonder. Starry-eyed, I began naming countries and regions like Nigeria, Mali, Scotland, Ireland, and Indigenous America. I felt as if I were finally on the cusp of discovering more about my family’s past.

After the high settled, my emotions fell flat as I left my computer screen with even more questions than I’d had before. What is my family’s real last name? How did my European ancestors intermingle with my Black ancestors? Was it violent? Was it not?

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Will I ever know?

I was born in Omaha, and moved to Massachusetts as a baby, rejoining those from my mother’s side of the family who moved North from rural Georgia in the 1960s. Growing up, I’ve always been close with my grandparents and knew of their origins, and a little about my great-grandparents and their lives in Georgia. But beyond that, things were fuzzy. It seemed my friends — especially my white friends — always knew more about their ancestors.

The writer’s great-grandmother lived in this home on a Georgia plantation.
The writer’s great-grandmother lived in this home on a Georgia plantation.from desire’ jackson-crosby

An experience I had two years ago as a college undergraduate exemplifies how this usually plays out. One afternoon in my advanced Italian language class, we were practicing ways to converse about family origins and immigration to America. The professor shared details of her Italian-Irish background and then began asking students one by one for their own stories. My heart sank a little as I predicted what would happen next.

Da dove è emigrata la tua famiglia?” (Where did your family emigrate from?)

Non lo so” (I don’t know), I answered, with a little laugh to mask the awkwardness I felt after listening to everyone else share places, names, and stories with the ease that comes with knowing something your whole life.

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In the seven years since that first DNA test, the AncestryDNA pool of samples has grown to 18 million users from all over the world. I’ve received updates and possible family member links, and examined many of the countless records the company provided. Recently, I was able to trace the lives of white ancestors in my father’s family tree in the 1600s to places like London and Northumberland, England. But I can only follow the Jacksons from my mother’s side as far as the 1870s — from there, the leads go cold. If I wanted to give a hard push to that seemingly impenetrable wall, lots of time and money for skilled genealogical researchers would be involved, and even that wouldn’t guarantee that any documentation of my enslaved ancestors exists.

I deeply appreciate what I can imagine Africa meant to my ancestors, but I have no faces, names, or stories to bring me closer to them and their homelands. It’s hard to adopt a place that’s supposed to be my own when it feels like a beautiful package with no label. My cousins Laney and Charlie felt similarly as we scoured AncestryDNA’s archives in January for information on our great-great-grandparents’ lives in the South.

These barriers only increase my desire to push through them. Although I know I will experience many setbacks as I continue my research, I will treasure the parts of my heritage that I do know and keep them at the forefront of my mind, no matter how many details I may discover about where I come from. I see the color of my skin, feel the texture of my hair, and look at the faces of my family, and know that I don’t need to spend hundreds of dollars on DNA research for what I’ve already inherited from my ancestors: love, resilience, joy, and pride.

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Desire’ Jackson-Crosby is a freelance journalist and writer based in Massachusetts. Send comments to magazine@globe.com. Tell your story: Email your 650-word essay on a relationship to connections@globe.com. Please note: We do not respond to submissions we won’t pursue.