I’ve just finished watching the first series of Henry Louis Gates Jr’s African American Lives (PBS). Yes, I know, I’m behind the times with this series…PBS programmes aren’t shown in the UK. So it’s taken a while to find where I could view the programme online. It was worth the effort. The series was superb.
The family history journeys taken by Gates and the African American personalities involved with the show made for interesting viewing. The last show in the series made me re-visit the concept of identity in terms of race and culture. In the last episode of the series, Gates and various celebrities (Quincy Jones, Whoopie Goldberg and Chris Tucker, to name but a few) take DNA tests which confirmed family myths, disproved other family tales and provided some big reveals about race and identity. None more so than Chris Tucker who ended up visiting Angola and a tribe he shares close genetic ties with (I’m being vague to avoid ‘spoilers’). Or for Gates, who asks that revealing question; “So what does this make me?”
This last episode made me revisit how people pick and choose which parts of their identity to embrace and which parts of themselves to sweep under the proverbial carpet. I liken this to baking bread. Once you’ve combined your water, flour, salt, oil and eggs and bake it, the whole (that would be the loaf of bread, by the way) is bigger than its constituent ingredients. In other words, once you have baked bread, you can no longer pull out the individual ingredients that made it. Each is indistinguishable and forms a unified whole.
This is how I view my genetic legacy. I embrace all of it. Even the bits other might think inconvenient. It is what it is.
I’ve never been hung up on labels. If anything, I’ve spent the greater part of my adult life distancing myself from labels. As soon as someone tries to pigeon-hole me into some category which makes sense to them, I bust free from it. No one label truly identifies me. Stereotypes don’t define me. This has made my relations with my fellow \Americans problematic and challenging for that is a society which obsesses about labels. Labels are reductionist and by embracing that mindset, human beings miss out on the rich diversity that surrounds us.
The Catholic, the Protestant, the Muslim, the Jew, the Buddhist and the Hindu are all combined in me. Each exists in a state of peaceful harmony and co-existence in my DNA. One part isn’t greater than the others. The East African, the North African, the Central African, the European, the East Asian, the Arab and the Central Asian also happily co-exist in my DNA. Trying to solely identify with one culture from my genetic mix implies that the others, somehow, are the lesser. Nothing could be further from the truth. Each has a role to play in the making of me. Each has a value.
This is true for every man, woman and child who ever lived, is alive today and will continue to be true for all the generations to follow.
If I were to identify solely with my African heritage, I wonder which African identity it would be. The Egyptian? The Tuareg? The Berber? The Mende? Each of these peoples have distinctly and radically different cultures, languages and histories. Yet, I am a descendant of all of them. So which would take precedence over the others?
If I were to identify as English, then what kind of English person would I be? The English were conquered by a myriad of people who all left their genetic markers in the English population: the Celts, the Angles, The Saxons, the Normans, The Vikings and the Romans. The Romans were far from being a ‘pure’ people with genetic mixtures encompassing European tribes, North Africans, Africans and Middle Eastern peoples). Pick a country or a people – any county or people – and it’s the same story. There are no ‘pure’ peoples or populations. DNA testing has put paid to that notion forever.
Instead of solely latching on to one label to define me, I’m curious about the ways in which my rich genetic mixture expresses itself. My journey is focused on how each people and culture from whom I’m descended shapes me and how I view myself and the world around me. By recognising all of the peoples and cultures with whom I share a genetic link, I see beyond the superficial.
I’m more curious about the similarities all human beings share. There is no ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality for me…there is only ‘us’. If I’ve come to any realisation on this journey it’s this: beneath the skin all human beings are the same the world over. It’s only how we chose to express ourselves in terms of culture and tradition which brings difference. It’s the result of being the intelligent, creative, curious and striving species that we are.
I am a firm believer that we can still celebrate cultural differences while recognising that every human being, in his or her essence, is the same. We are one family united by countless different branches.
This was my only quibble with African American Lives. I get the approach with the final episode. TV shows, by their very format, require resolution. It’s how our minds have become programmed. We expect a definitive resolution or outcome.
Nothing is entirely black or white…especially our DNA.
With that said, I can’t watch to catch the second series of Gate’s programme. It’s a fresh take on an established television genre.