In a 1969 televised debate about civil rights, James Baldwin was confronted, very rudely, with the question of why Black Americans face a unique struggle in this country. “In the first place, I have to deal with the fact that my history is inaccessible to me,” he says. “My history in this country begins with a bill of sale.”
What Baldwin spoke to is a reality for so many Black Americans. Deeply connecting to that personal history, and understanding where we and our families fit into it, has proven to be challenging or even impossible. Centuries of enslavement, criminalization, and inequality created the conditions where ties to Africa were intentionally severed and records about Black people were seldom kept.
However, over the past decade, DNA kits and online historical databases have created unique opportunities for Black Americans to reconnect with their familial histories and ancestry. With the help of these burgeoning technologies, many Black Americans have unveiled surprising family histories. They’ve discovered family members they’ve never met and DNA from parts of the world they didn’t know they were tied to — they have been able to connect their Blackness and history in ways they never could have before.
These tests, however, do not come without limitations. For Black, Asian, and Latino people, it is much harder to use these resources to trace ancestry. The more samples a company has from a particular ethnic group or region, the more it learns (and can share) about different groups and their DNA. And since many of these companies’ initial customers were white, it created a big discrepancy between the kind of information a person with ties to Europe could glean from the tests relative to people of color.
But now, with more people from diverse backgrounds ordering kits and taking tests, companies have started to create more diverse and extensive DNA databases, and even more opportunities for people of color to make meaningful discoveries.
Vox talked to three Black Americans who used DNA and ancestry websites to explore their heritage. Here’s what they found on their quest to uncover their family histories. Their remarks have been lightly edited for clarity.
“Now that I have found my family, I get to look at the most beautiful faces of different shades of brown and see a part of me”
Keisha Robinson, 33, Springfield, Illinois
I was in the foster care system off and on from the age of 3 until I aged out at 21. Growing up, I struggled with my Black identity. Being raised in a mostly white environment felt lonely, like searching for your face in a sea of faces that don’t look or speak like you do.
In 2011, I was adopted at age 24 by a former foster family. My time in foster care had come to an end and I finally got the “forever” family and security I never really had. But by then, it didn’t feel life-changing because I had already been in the system for so long.
I knew a bit about my biological mom’s side of my family, but after I lost my maternal grandmother and biological mother over an 18-month period when I was 30, I wanted to learn more about them and my ancestry. I took my first test in maybe November of 2019 — the results were inconclusive, so they sent me another kit. I felt like maybe I was an alien or something and wasn’t sure if I wanted to take it again, but my adopted mom thought I should.
I took it again and was surprised to find that a young woman and I matched as first cousins. She messaged me first. I replied and said I would be okay to talk sometime, but my lack of patience and curiosity got the best of me. I started digging around to figure out how we were related, looking through Facebook and social media for clues. By the time she replied, I had already figured out that she was not my cousin but actually my sister, because we had the same father. She was raised by the maternal side of her family but had a very meaningful connection with our dad’s side as well, so she didn’t hesitate to introduce me to everyone who she knew.
From there, we messaged back and forth. In May, she said when I was ready, there were people who wanted to meet me. I thought about it for maybe two minutes and said I was in! I drove to Peoria, Illinois, with a friend for support because there were so many emotions running through me. On that day, I met my sister, a younger brother, an aunt, two cousins, a grandma and step-grandpa! Meeting my paternal family, they cried and stared at my face. Which was unnerving, to say the least. Apparently, I had an Aunt Mechelle who passed away and they thought we looked similar.
From that first meeting, I have been up to visit at least once a month. The experience has been very overwhelming. At times, it is so hard for me to contain my excitement and anxiety over finally meeting my family. I found myself in the same room with four generations of Nichols women. Having that as an adult is something that brings happy tears to my eyes.
When Black Lives Matter started, I became more socially aware of just how dangerous it is to simply exist in my skin. I wanted to talk to my adoptive family about it, but I realized they didn’t want to talk about race. In one of our family group chats, they shared a photo of my niece and my adopted father. She had on a onesie that said “my po-po’s life matters.” He is a cop. It led to me trying to tell them that “Blue Lives Matter” is simply a way to silence Black voices. My adopted father is only a cop when he is on the job. I am Black 24/7. Then one time, I went to a Black Lives Matter protest and I was told not to get stupid or violent. I took that moment to address some things I heard during my childhood that affected the way I looked at my skin. We haven’t really talked since then.
Now that I have found my family, I get to look at the most beautiful faces of different shades of brown and see a part of me. I carry that with me into the world. I think it is important for everyone to do whatever positive work you have to do to feel comfortable in your skin.
“The results make me feel very uniquely American”
Tracey Chambers, 55, Washington, DC
I first took a DNA test about 10 years ago, through a company called Ancestry by DNA. At first, I was excited to discover what exact countries of origin my ancestors came from in Africa. But my results came back and my makeup was 58 percent sub-Saharan African and 42 percent European. A subsequent Ancestry.com test showed a small percentage of Native American, too.
I identified as Black prior to the test and I knew that there was some European ancestry, but not nearly as much as showed up in the test. I was totally surprised to find out that I had so much European ancestry, and it made me even have a small existential crisis. What did it mean that I had so much European blood? How did the mixture even happen?
The results led me to research my family tree. I discovered that I have Dutch ancestors who arrived in New York in 1663, when it was still the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam. I even found out their names. By the late 1700s, records show descendants of those Dutch settlers described as mixed race, and by the early 20th century, census records describe them as “negro” or “colored.” On Ancestry.com. I started with my great-great-grandmother’s name that I already knew. Her mother’s last name was DeGroat. I was then able to trace DeGroats back to the 1660s in New York, and back to the 1500s in the Netherlands. I found the names of some Black ancestors as well as their locations, but there were far fewer details about them.
I discussed it with my siblings, but our parents and grandparents have long since passed away. One of my siblings did his own DNA test after I did mine. We all had similar reactions and were just surprised to discover the history and grapple with what it meant for our blackness.
Ultimately, I settled on the truth: I am a Black woman with white DNA. I always have and always will identify as Black, but I am a particularly American example of what it means to be Black. I feel like my ancestry is the story of America — European settlers, earliest enslaved Africans, Native Americans.
My Blackness means community, and feeling connected, even across ethnicities and nationalities. For all Americans, there are so many similar cultural experiences, like the importance of family, pride in history. Various updates from Ancestry keep changing the African countries that they thought my ancestors were from, so it actually doesn’t make me feel more connected to Africa. But the results make me feel very uniquely American.
“Now the knowledge that we could pass on to our children and that they can pass on to theirs is so much more”
Benjamin Jealous, 48, Maryland
I first went on Ancestry.com 10 years ago. I started by researching my father’s side. They come from Europe, and there’s Roman records that go back forever. In three hours and half a bottle of wine, I had gotten all the way back to Merovingian kings in southern France and their now-debunked pedigree claiming that they descended from Jesus and Mary Magdalene. So I found myself like, “Jesus and Mary Magdalene, what?” Then I Googled and ended up finding out that it was all a lie, a ruse to justify the “divine right of kings.” That was still such a fascinating experience and it emboldened me to try to dig into my family’s more difficult history, which was my mom’s side of the family.
I found out that the DNA ancestors of the last generation to survive slavery in my family descend from some of the first settlers of Virginia, including William Randolph and his wife, who were known as the Adam and Eve of Virginia. I already knew that my family also descended from two Reconstructionist statesmen on my mom’s side, but I wanted to dig even deeper. For that, I had to go back into the census and into little Southern newspapers. What really hit me was that I found a little article about one of my ancestors, Peter G. Morgan:
Morgan was born into slavery in the early 1800s but made enough money as a self-taught shoe and saddle maker to buy his own freedom. He eventually even bought the freedom of others in his family, including his wife, who he reportedly purchased for $1,000.
The story was about him in the late 1860s throwing a Confederate colonel out of his store. The colonel had heard him give a speech on the steps of the Virginia state Capitol and was outraged about it. So he burst into Peter’s cobbler shop, screaming at him about his speech. Peter ordered his son to show the colonel out of his store, and the colonel pulled out a sidearm and shot his son through the window. His son survived; it hit him in his leg.
By that time, I was addicted to ancestry. I felt proud that he [Morgan] had the courage and conviction that it took to draw a line and remove a man — who was similar to those who raided the Capitol on January 6 — from his store. I also felt sad and angry that I couldn’t find any stories after that about that man being tried or convicted.
My book, The Price of Progress, is a look at 150 years of the Black freedom struggle from 1864 to 2013, informed by my family’s DNA and digital databases. These incredible sources of information have allowed us to be much more ambitious in telling a story and also in just understanding who we are.
Now the knowledge that we could pass on to our children and that they can pass on to theirs is so much more. Ultimately, I hope that the book inspires others to dig deeper into not just who they are, but who we are as a people and as a country — what America is as an experiment.