As I wrote about three years ago when my grandmother died, my family’s past is quite mysterious. On my father’s side, things are pretty clear, though more than a bit complicated. My paternal great-uncle spent a great deal of time putting together a family tree of the Fobis in Cameroon, and it was filled with concubines, wives, and –as was custom at one time- women marrying their husband’s brother upon said husband’s death. Whatever I felt about myself as a modern Westerner, and however I conceptualized myself as a through-and-through American, things change a bit when you see that during the Roaring Twenties Fobis in Cameroon were accumulating wives and concubines (Holler! Woot! Woot!), or that my father’s own adoption (as a young child) upon the death my grandfather was done in the traditional manner in which a woman was taken in by her husband’s brother.
On my mother’s side, things are even murkier. I knew very little of my maternal grandfather, and nothing substantive about my maternal grandmother’s background. Her dusky hue led to talk that she may “have had some Indian blood,” and a second-hand mention by my mother that she thought that was true. In fact, though I didn’t go all Elizabeth Warren about it, I always assumed that this was true, but I never had much motivation to dig into things to sort out the truth or falsity of it.
Last January, that changed. While on a ski trip in Colorado, I discovered in a quite painful fashion that I had a form of sickle-cell that made my body hate me at altitudes. It’s a genetic condition not uncommon amongst Western Africans, and during my three days in the hospital , I spoke with my little brother Lloyd, who just happened to drop that he too had this condition. This would have been a useful bit of information to have known beforehand, but none of us had really ever made a point to do anything like a family medical history. Splenectomy narrowly averted, when I got out of the hospital I felt motivated to at least know a bit about my family.
Once back in Boston, I did some poking around on ancestry websites, which didn’t reveal a ton. My mother’s maiden name, Gleghorn, harkens back to a particular geographic feature in Newcastle, England. So, I guess that sorts out who in the Premier League I should be rooting for. But, I wanted something more substantive, so I purchased ancestry.com’s DNA analyzer as well as National Geographic’s National Genographic product, which is similar. The reason I bought both was that I was a bit skeptical of a commercial product like this, so I wanted to make sure that both tests matched. Though the two tests have slightly different nuances, they convey largely the same information. Luckily, what they said matched. So, either they’re in cahoots, they are similarly incompetent or crooked, or they both did a good job. I’m assuming the latter.
So, here’s the results. Brian Tangang Fobi is:
-45% “Sub-Saharan African” –characteristic of Cameroon (duh)
-20% “Mediterranean”- characteristics are indicative of Italian, Levant, Sardinian or Greek
-20% “Northern European” Indicative of German
-7% “Cohanim” (note: this was referred to as “Southwestern Asian” by National Geographic, but the Ancestry.com uses this indicator in conjunction with a Y-chromosome test… Okay, I admit, I don’t fully understand it all) — I won’t lie, I had to look this word up. Apparently it’s a derivative of “Cohen,” which is to say “Jewish.”
-6% South African (thus my affection for Cape Town?)
Also, I learned that I am 3.8% Neanderthal and .8% Denisovan. In other words, I’m 4.6% caveman.
This has answered some questions, but made unclear many others. Contrary to family folklore, I appear to have no Indian ancestry, though perhaps (?) grandma’s bronze skin is attributable to that dash of Italian or Jewish in her. I understand that this is not a perfect system, and that it’s not as though these descriptors are measures of discrete and distinct units of national blood percentages. That is, there is no “Italian gene,” nor a “Jewish gene.” That said, I would like to poke around more and find out how it is that my grandfather came to have a Newcastle name instead of say, Schweinsteiger, Ballotelli or Ginsberg.
I feel excited to have learned this information, and I will follow up on it at some point in order to paint a more thorough picture of my white family. But at the same time, I’m not entirely sure what it all means with regard to how I think about my family or myself. The white side of the family had always seemed to think of itself as vaguely ethnic-less; which is to say they were just plain’ol white. This stands in very sharp contrast to, say, my friend Brian C., whose Italian-American family seems to draw meaning and value from their ethnic roots. It may be that I have some measure of Italian DNA in my blood (or, said less offensively to scientists, I may have an Italian ancestor), but nothing I believe about race or ethnicity would lead me to see myself as in any way Italian in the same way that Brian is. Similarly, I can’t say that I’m Jewish in any meaningful way.
Nonetheless, part of the reason that I want to press on in my investigations is that in addition to finding out about my family history, I am also forcing myself through a process of what it means to *be* something, in an ethnic sense… and perhaps otherwise. To the extent that I had ever thought about it, this process and investigation was not something that I had ever imagined that I’d do. Many black Americans have done this sort of DNA testing in order to reconnect with their African heritage, but for me that wasn’t much of an issue. I was born in Cameroon from Cameroonian seed, and thus I am personally connected with Africa and well-acquainted with the details of my paternal ethnic heritage.
Instead, it’s the white side of things that is the jumbled mystery. I remember reading a few months back about how many white people in America list “American” as their ethnicity. At the time, I got an ocular muscle sprain from rolling my eyes, but I am now just a tiny bit (very tiny- let’s not overdo this!) sympathetic to the processes that bring people to not think about their racial background in such loose, incomplete, insufficient or silly ways. What I will point out, though, is that I came to not care about the white half (well, 49%) as much because as a quotidian matter, it was just never nearly as important as the realities imposed upon me by the other 51% of my genome. My guess is that for lots of “regular” white folks, “white is right” was good enough, so there was never much need to parse that out and never a reason to attach it to a more detailed history.
So, I’ve started down a path of a very particular kind of self-discovery. I may buy DNA kits for my mom (99% Kryptonian) and my brother Aloysius (trisomy-21, 98% dumbass, 100% Cro-Magnon), but beyond that, I’ll see if I can’t put my investigative / history skills to use in figuring out the wonderful series of encounters that brought about this wacko melange of humanity that is Brian Tangang Fobi.
(Most important, I won’t let the scientific murkiness of it all prevent me from feeling a license to have access to a whole new body of ethnic jokes. Unfortunately, I only know one Jewish joke:
A rabbi walks into a bar with a frog on his shoulder.
Bartender says, “you don’t see that every day.”
Frog says, “oh yeah? We’ve got tons of these guys in Brooklyn.”
I also know a joke about a German at the Battle of Stalingrad, but it’s sort of long. Ask me sometime and I’ll tell it to you.)