A Voice from Mali: Discovering my African Ancestor

by Jonathan Gillentine

 

Recently my mother and I were sharing our thoughts about diversity: our Scots-Irish heritage; the tragedies experienced by black men across the country at the hands of white police officers; and the possibility of ethnic diversity among our ancestors. After reflecting on our conversation, I decided to have my DNA tested, curious to know what other ancestry there was in my family. The results – a high percentage for Europe, mostly Britain, Ireland, and Scandinavia. I scrolled down – the list of origins was alphabetical – to see the source of the remaining, small percentage of my DNA. Nothing. I scrolled back up. America? Nothing. Hmm . . . scrolled to the top of the list. Africa? Yes, AFRICA - an ancestor from the region of present-day Mali. It was such a joyful epiphany!

 

I looked online to see how many others there were like me: “white” people with a small percentage of “black.” In 2014, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. wrote in The Root on the subject of white Americans having recent African ancestry. He cited Kasia Bryc’s research: “Bryc found that about 4 percent of whites have at least 1 percent or more of African ancestry, known as ‘hidden African ancestry.’” Gates also stated:

 

My hope, in sharing these findings, is that those of our white brothers and sisters who discover that they have at least 1 percent of African DNA will be filled with as much joy and pride in their black ancestors as they would be if they found out they were related to the British royal family, or if their original American ancestor arrived on these shores on the Mayflower, rather than on a slave ship.

 

The discovery of my African ancestry has brought me to wonder: How can I continue to use my voice, and the voices of my African ancestors, to fight against institutional racism, both within the context of education and in the larger sphere of American racial and cultural identity? How will revealing that I am not only white, but also black help me take another step toward living with authenticity? These are questions I will continue to answer I as ponder the question of my racial origins.

 

I recently read a tribute for South African artist and activist Zanele Muholi in Out100. In it she described her own revelation while creating a collection of self-portraits that celebrate her own culture while challenging stereotypes: “We get caught up in other people’s worlds. You never ask yourself how you became.” These words resonated for me within my own discovery. How did I, indeed, become who I am? I am likely a descendent of a slave, yet I will not be a slave to hate, shame, or denial. Nor will I hide. I take joy and pride in my discovery.

 

I am African American.

 

  Jonathan Gillentine, PhD, NBCT served in the Department of Education for over 36 years, most recently as a mentor teacher for the Executive Office on Early Learning. He was a Hope Street Group Hawai`i State Teacher Fellow from 2014-2016. This year he was inducted into the National Teachers Hall of Fame, the first Hawai`i teacher to be chosen for this honor.

Jonathan Gillentine, PhD, NBCT served in the Department of Education for over 36 years, most recently as a mentor teacher for the Executive Office on Early Learning. He was a Hope Street Group Hawai`i State Teacher Fellow from 2014-2016. This year he was inducted into the National Teachers Hall of Fame, the first Hawai`i teacher to be chosen for this honor.