Finding Your Navel String

Every year before Christmas – in one of many attempts to get economic activity underway – parents are told what the hottest toys are. As a result, “Tickle Me Elmo”, numerous Elsa’s, beyblades, hoverboards and drones have flown off the shelves. If one didn’t have kids, a person could always Google what the top ten presents to buy were that year – or they could just look at what Gwyneth or Oprah said were their favourite things that week/year.

This year apparently, the hottest thing you can give is the gift of finding out who your people are. The notion of knowing who someone’s “people” were was first introduced to me as a teenager, when bringing someone home to meet your parents meant that they would inevitably ask the question – “Who are your people”? If the name of the prospect’s parents or grandparents elicited a lightbulb moment – in other words, they were known to your parents – then said prospect was in the clear.

Since then, knowing who your people are has taken on a deeper meaning. I’m aware that there has always been a push – at least on the part of people of African descent to know where exactly we came from. Since the publication of Alex Haley’s “Roots” in 1976 and the subsequent movie made from the book a year later – there have been numerous trips, journeys and pilgrimages back to the Motherland. Knowledge about our heritage has manifested in any number of ways – including renewed interest in African food, dance, names, fashion and birthing practices.

Ancestry.com and 23and Me.com are two popular companies that have taken advantage of this interest many have in finding out where, as the old people used to say – our “navel string is buried”. There are many more providing these services, but these two have elevated it to stocking stuffer status this year. The commercial for one company shows a family gathering that begins at the door with primarily Caucasian members and ends at the dinner table, with some other races mixed in.

Naturally, since some of our ancestors are not from the areas where we now live, finding our DNA make-up is a gift that any of us could use – as long as we have approximately $99US dollars ($69US if you take advantage of the special Christmas offer) and some extra spit.

“Who Do You Think You Are” and “Finding Your Roots” are two TV series where celebrities discovered who their family members were and where they came from. The programme was so popular, that when one participant discovered that he had a slave-owning descendant – he wanted to cut that part out. I guess he thought it made him look bad.

Birther controversies and Meghan Markle’s family tree aside, I’m a little fascinated by this push by some companies to mainstream DNA testing and make it seem as simple as 123. Are we hoping for proof that we all come from the rib of that first man or that we really all belong to the same family tree? Is it secretly a genetic world-mapping exercise? Or is it (as some have suggested) a clever way to divulge information that you wouldn’t otherwise have or dream of giving to people you don’t actually know?

I’ve been encouraged to find out who my people are. A free starting point involves talking to the oldest family members and listening to what stories they have to tell. Bibles, title deeds, marriage certificates and other documents can provide names that can help in the search. For us in Antigua, one of the first things we may find out is which plantation our great grandparents “worked” on. The National Archives may be able to provide further information if given a name or two. From there, it may be a few hops, skips and jumps to find out where in Africa they – and by extension I – come from.

I’m not sure how far the information that I have will take me, so I may just have to hawk one up for science.

I know… Sorry.

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