My PhD research looks at genetic ancestry testing and genealogical practices in different post-slavery societies, and how these phenomena are influencing our notions of personal identity and human kinship and difference.
As a mini-experiment, I have roped five friends into taking DNA ancestry tests with me. We are from different national and cultural backgrounds, aged between 25-35 years old, and we are all awaiting our autosomal test results. I have asked each person to describe their expectations and hopes regarding their genetic test results, with the aim of highlighting the ways in which our national and cultural backgrounds – as well as our physical appearances – prime our ideas about what our likely or desired ancestral origins might be.
Carlos, born and raised in Salvador da Bahia, Brazil
What are your expectations regarding your genetic ancestry test result?
While I have various issues with the idea of mestiçagem, as developed by Gilberto Freyre, the theory isn’t completely invalid. Brazil is a ‘mixed’ country. I don’t know exactly how deep genetic tests go, but I think that more than 50% of my result will be linked to West Africa, another portion will be indigenous American (around 30%), and around 20% European. Obviously these percentages (particularly African and European) might vary a bit, with a tendency towards a higher proportion of European markers.
What would be your ideal genetic ancestry test result?
My ideal result would be a high percentage from West Africa – if possible from Benin – with another relatively high proportion of indigenous markers, and a low number of European markers. The question is simple: embracing a black identity, in my case, means accepting that I identify and am identified as a descendant of enslaved Africans. Since I study slavery in 18th century Brazil, and I identify with and am relatively familiar with the history of Benin in that period, it would be exciting to receive a result that indicated markers from that region. On the other hand, it’s likely that I will have a high percentage of Yoruba ancestry, due to the more recent migration of this group to Bahia.
That’s my ideal result, anyway. My family tree is pretty complicated. My maternal and paternal families come from Reconcavo da Bahia, where historically there was a higher predominance of Central-West Africans and indigenous Americans. I even have some indigenous connections in both sides of my own family. My maternal great-grandmother was Amerindian (despite having a name that is commonly linked to slaves, Sirila), and my eldest cousins from the interior are extremely indigenous-looking. My hair, which is jet black with smooth, fine curls, seems to bear the signs of that Amerindian lineage – although it could equally be put down to European genetic influence.
From a cultural point of view, I have always felt an affinity to black culture because of the place I grew up, in the outskirts of Salvador, along with a high concentration of black folk – although, in my specific case, that isn’t a marker of identity. Of course, living in the ‘blackest city outside of Africa’ has something to do with it, but I believe my identity has grown out of situations of oppression, and not street culture. Obviously, I identify with African culture, but I enjoy samba-reggae as much as I do bossa nova, and flamenco music strikes more of a chord in me than Olodum drums. I prefer a pair of jeans to a kaftan, but on the other hand, I prefer a good leather sandal to a regular shoe! So I’m all mixed up, basically.
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