I D K I S S U E 5
I got power, poison, pain and joy inside my DNA
I got hustle though, ambition, flow, inside my DNA
— Kendrick Lamar, “DNA”
DO NOT EAT, DRINK, SMOKE, OR CHEW GUM FOR 30 MINUTES BEFORE GIVING YOUR SALIVA SAMPLE.
FILL THE TUBE WITH SALIVA TO THE BLACK WAVY LINE.
11:48 P.M. — I’m watching The Office with the tube at my lips, filling my mouth with saliva and letting it dribble into the plastic container. It’s a Tuesday night in Chicago, and I am finally preparing my sample for AncestryDNA. I’ve wanted to take a DNA test for a few years, hoping to find out more about my father’s background and his family—answers to questions I didn’t have time to ask before he died—about my heritage, and how much I could learn about my slave ancestry, but I have doubts.
Half of AncestryDNA’s map of Africa (Chad, Mauritania, Niger, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia) is not included in the options for ancestry results. Somehow, they have not acquired enough saliva samples from people in these areas. If I have any Saharan African roots, how will I know? The researchers would categorize me as “Other/Unknown.” My mouth is dry, so I struggle to produce the sample quickly, taking at least four minutes to get the bubbles above the line. It seems impossible that my spit can define me. Online, I check the boxes that say I do not want to meet any potential relatives. There is only one thing I want: the map, the list of countries and regions that make up my ethnicity, my blackness.
REPLACE THE FUNNEL WITH THE CAP. TIGHTEN TO RELEASE STABILIZING FLUID.
11:53 P.M. — It wasn’t until after our father died that my sister and I started asking our mother where we come from. At our private school in Ohio, we had been assigned an abnormal amount of heritage homework and projects: Where are you from? Interview a grandparent; interview someone who grew up during WWII. What does your name mean? Where did your family immigrate from?
And for most of these questions, we didn’t have answers. My sister interviewed our grandmother and tried to adopt our great-grandmother’s name as a second middle name. I interviewed my seventh-grade history teacher about “counterculture” and Woodstock. Our family did not immigrate from anywhere—we had no Ellis Island stories to share with the classroom. What we knew was Ohio and Louisiana, very little about the latter, but Ohio had been our family’s home for generations, which made us black, and only black.
For a long time we were the only black girls in our classes, which didn’t mean much when we were eight, but by 16 we were hyper aware of it. Black bodies in white classrooms always seem out of place—students staring at me while we read To Kill a Mockingbird aloud or watched Civil War videos, as if they were waiting for me to divulge exclusive information from my inherited fountain of blackness—as if my skin alone would offer the answers they sought.
Everything I knew about blackness I learned at home or in books. In second grade, we studied the entire United States, learning their histories and state symbols. I was assigned Kentucky, the Bluegrass state, and neighbor to my beloved Ohio, sharing Cardinals and mountains. Kentucky is the only reason I know how to spot a Dogwood tree. In third grade, we studied Europe and Australia—I quickly came to know more about Aborigines and Iceland than I did about slavery and Martin Luther King Jr. Finally, when I was nine, we learned about Native Americans and black people because we were planted in Columbus, Ohio. Ohio being an Indigenous word and previously populated by several Indigenous tribes, we took field trips to burial mounds, Native American cemeteries, and caves throughout central Ohio. And there is Ohio’s history as a free state: the river existing as a border to freedom, images of white women hanging quilts in their windows at night—we learned about “Johnny Cake,” Harriet Tubman, and “drinking gourds.”
Once, a white girl brought in “Johnny Cake” as a treat for all of us, displaying her fourth-grade understanding of slavery and blackness—it didn’t taste like home and crumbled in my hand. I’m sure she made it from scratch, using cornmeal and no sugar, instead of buying a fifty-cent box of Jiffy mix. The slave experience versus the black experience. I remember one traumatizing field trip, where we simulated a “slave run,” my palms and knees digging into rocks and dirt as my classmates and I hid underneath the floor of a cabin; a classmate “caught” and several others shoved into a cage made of chicken wire.
DNA tests are most profitable in the United States, a country built on imperialism and immigration. The only place where “white” and “black” exist as identities. My high school history teacher made sure to let all the white students know that they were not “Caucasian,” that their families did not originate in the Caucus mountains, that they were only white. She didn’t need to tell me that I was only black. Blackness is a construct morphed into an identity, the same way white people appropriated the term “American” to mean people in the United States, excluding Canada, Mexico, Central America, South America, and the Caribbean. But my body screams black: wide hips, wide nose, dark skin, and kinky, black hair. The answers that I’ve been looking for are in my flesh, my genetic code—but I’m still not sure I can articulate my questions.
SHAKE THE TUBE FOR AT LEAST FIVE SECONDS.
11:54 P.M. — My mother told stories that we were Haitian, which was exciting because before being Haitian, we had only been black. Black as in erasure. Black as in our ancestry could only be mapped to where our parents were born. Black as in nowhere. And being Haitian seemed probable; I was a sun child, spending all the time I could basking in the sunshine, letting the melanin in my cells bake to a crisp. I called myself a coffee bean. But I was language-less, culture-less; everything I knew about Haiti was from a textbook.
Turns out, I was not Haitian. Back to black. Black as in nothing. Black as in consuming.
When I was 12, I decided I was Creole. My father was from Louisiana, and his mother was biracial. I understood that Creole people were mixed people in or from Louisiana, which made my father a version of Creole. So, I was Creole until a boy asked me what kind of Creole I was—I didn’t know what to say, and he laughed at me. He was Creole; I wasn’t anymore. Again, I was “I don’t know.” Once again, I was black. “Just black,” I told anyone who asked. The black face in the classroom; the black body in the locker room. My breasts budded first, and my period came last.
There is a beauty mark on my left index finger, and for the longest time I thought it was a splinter; it just appeared. I’ve never found myself beautiful, but the beauty marks keep appearing all over my body: my arms, my breasts, my thighs—no one’s ever called me beautiful. I hold the tube carefully between two fingers: What does it mean to be black? The saliva sample is an eight ball: Ask again later.
PLACE THE TUBE IN THE COLLECTION BAG.
11:56 P.M. — Over the years, I have been embracing my “just” blackness more. There is satisfaction in not having to list all the different ways I am “exotic,” there is something special in just being another random black spatter in a Pollack. Race was never at the forefront of my mind until I went to college. Until black people started being killed more visibly. Then I had to think about my future and my present, and I had to reconsider the privileges of my past. One day, I woke up and there was a dead black boy on the internet, lying cold in the summer heat. Another day, there was a new barrier between me and my childhood friends—my blackness finally visible.
White spaces will blur you to the point where you don’t consider race anymore, you’re colorless, you’re molecules, invisible to the eye. I became obsessed with that invisibility, which at any time could flip to hypervisibility—all eyes on me—at any moment. I googled my blackness, began reading up on the histories of black men and women, watching documentaries and having these conversations with my black friends.
After the non-indictment of Darren Wilson, for which my friends and I watched Ferguson on fire from our living room, our college had a meeting for black people to gather in solidarity and discuss our presence on campus in the midst of racial tensions. We were six percent of the student body. The next day there was a meeting for the entire campus to discuss the same microaggressions and tensions. My white friend attended and returned to the house distraught, but also angry that we, her three black friends, had not gone with her. She tried to tell us about how black people were being treated in the United States as if we didn’t know. We laughed at her frustration, shrugged our shoulders, and turned back around to do our homework.
In my college Psychology classes, we were forced to fill out The Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale because we were college students: overwhelmed and stressed, meat in a pressure cooker. Present-day Chicago, I fill out the scale again. I circle “YES” on question #5, “death of close family member.” Sixty-three points, just for that. My score is 455 out of 600. The lower the score the better. The test says I have a high risk of becoming ill soon. I knock on wood. I am already sick of the world, every single day. The test doesn’t know that. The test doesn’t know I am seeking out my family history—how many points is that? The symptoms of the United States are embedded in my body, dormant in my code, coating my tongue.
SEAL THE BAG WITH ADHESIVE STRIP. PLACE YOUR SAMPLE
IN THE PREPAID MAILING BOX.
11:57 P.M. — This particular DNA test costs $100, but I got mine on sale. I decided to take the plunge after my Creative Writing professor encouraged me to find out more about my father for an essay I’d written about his house, and in doing so, myself. But I was interested in both sides of my family, specifically how far back I could go. Could I find the plantations? Could I find the boats?
When I was 19, I visited a plantation in North Carolina. Next to the hog pen was a small log cabin: dirt floor, two cots, a ladder leading to the second floor. A sign on the cabin listed the names of the thirty-six slaves who lived there. I stood in the cabin alone—it was my first plantation. I had known, logically, that slavery happened, and that at least one of the white families I’d grown up with had, at one point, probably owned slaves. But I didn’t feel the weight of the past until I stood in that room. A map could only tell me the where and maybe the when of my ancestors, but what I needed to learn and understand was how. How did my ancestors survive and what did hope look like to them—a generation that only imagined freedom?
The DNA kit is smaller than I anticipated. I expected a booklet and a map—instead I got a tube and a pre-addressed box. I expected to receive a hard copy version of my results—instead I had to register online. DNA and genetic ancestry tests are marketed to a white audience: they can afford it, and the tests will reveal trace amounts of unknown ethnicity in their DNA. In the commercials, a man trades in his lederhosen for a kilt because he is not German, but Scottish; a woman walks around various ceramic pots with Indigenous designs. There are no black people in the commercials.
But there is nothing more important to blackness and black culture than heritage. Why else does my family have all these photos, notes, and memorabilia? There is a reason I try to record every single thing I do, be it a written history, a video, or a photograph; a reason storytelling feels so natural and important to my being. This recording and collecting counters the active erasure happening to blackness and black people—it reminds people of the true size of Africa on the maps, of her diverse countries; it tells the stories of overcrowded boats and bloodied crops; and we have photos and videos so that we don’t end up lost in life, inhabiting a nowhere for forgotten people and their cultures.
MAIL IN YOUR SAMPLE.
NEXT MORNING, 8:45 A.M. — I am going home, flying back to Ohio from Chicago for a three-week mini-vacation. The small white box with my saliva sample is packed in my duffle bag. I have slight anxiety at its existence, at what will happen in two months when I receive my ethnicity map. Finally, I can find out these answers, and begin remapping my family tree, retelling their stories, and understanding the histories that assembled to produce me. I am assigning myself the role of recorder and anthropologist. I am already thinking about when I should take another DNA test from another company to compare the results. I am wondering if once I have the results, I should travel to these places around the world, or whether I start with the United States and map my ancestors’ paths backwards from Ohio.
I want to be in the physical spaces: I want to see the houses, to walk through the fields, to explore the migration. I can only imagine the stories of what happened over the Atlantic, the void between a continent and her people—the emptiness of the Atlantic, the bodies floating and then sinking to the bottom. The deeper I go underwater when swimming, the quieter it gets—is that what it feels like in the void? I am afraid of the ocean and its secrets. I only stand in the shallows, staring at the water’s change in color as it swells in front of me. The bodies trapped 8,486 meters below the surface by the pressure of the water—if they’re still there it’d be impossible to tell they’re African. They’d be nothing more than bleached skeletons, crumbling into the sand.
And of course, there is the fear of being not black enough, of being too white, too other, too non-black. I know I am black, but can you tell me if I’m African? Can you tell me who my ancestors were before they were enslaved? Race is a construct, blackness is a construct, black culture is man-made, handcrafted. It’s only when faced with non-black people in non-black cultures that blackness becomes a smudge, a choice—a burden, an attack, an act of violence.
Maybe I should burn the evidence before it gets into the wrong hands. The DNA test results will have read my palms, but can only tell me about my past—what about my future? No matter the results, I'll always be black: phenotypically, culturally, and psychologically black. Blackness goes deeper than skin cells, it is a culture that has affected every sense of my being. When I am buying elbow macaroni and five different types of expensive cheese at the grocery store, I am still black. When I am swimming in a pool with chlorine bleaching my dyed curls, I am still black. When I walk into a room or a space that I am not expected to be in, I am my most authentic, unapologetic black. No DNA results can change that. I drop my sample into the mailbox. Pick-up is at 11:15 A.M.
YOUR TEST WILL BE COMPLETED 6-8 WEEKS FROM THE TIME
WE RECEIVE YOUR SAMPLE.
Negesti Kaudo is an essayist rooted in the Midwest. In 2015, she became the youngest recipient of the Ohioana Library Association's Walter Rumsey Marvin Grant for unpublished writers under 30. She earned her MFA from Columbia College Chicago. Her work is forthcoming or published in Seneca Review, Fourth Genre, Wear Your Voice Magazine, NewCity, Vagabond City Literary Journal, Cosmonauts Avenue, Nailed Magazine, Mosaic Literary Magazine, Love Me, Love My Belly Zine No. 3, and elsewhere. She is currently working on a collection of essays and teaching first-year college students. Find her on Twitter or Instagram @kaudonegesti.