A Letter to My Daughter Upon Learning the Results of an Ancestry Test
David Chariandy: "We Must Remain Close to the Women Who Dance"
Soon after you returned from Quebec, your mother and I had our bloodlines tested. Together, as a family, we opened a kit of glossy cardboard about the size and shape of a big hardcover book. The test promised “an unprecedented view into your deep ancestry,” and it came from National Geographic, the publisher of a monthly magazine I remember from my childhood, mostly because it exposed me for the first time to pictures of naked people, though never individuals from North America or Europe. The test results would provide “a breakdown of your regional ancestry by percentage, going as far back as 200,000 years.” It would produce “a rich report that reveals the anthropological story of your ancestors—where they lived and how they migrated.” By mailing samples of our bodies to a distant lab of experts, your mother and I would learn the truths of our heredity and belonging. We would, in this way, be adding our “own chapter to the human story.”
There are times, dearest daughter, when circumstances that appear to be ordinary to others strike me as difficult. When I know, at least dimly, why I feel the way I feel, but I cannot in the moment express it to others, cannot “use my words” as I’ve often asked you to do. All I remember is that on that day as we gathered around the dining room table to follow the instructions on the kit, a bad mood flooded over me. The checkerboard pictures of distinct human types on the enclosed pamphlet suddenly struck me as contrived and annoying. The scraping of my inner cheek for a sample of my DNA felt impossibly irritating; and even though I had been the one to buy the kit, I now grew suspicious, reasonably or not, about the prospect of submitting my body to anonymous men of science in the hope that they would tell me something pleasing about myself. There were little vials of liquid into which we were supposed to put our samples, probably to preserve them for the trip in the mail; and I am normally a very careful individual, but I somehow managed to topple the vial, its thin clear liquid seeping onto the table before us. “Careful,” said your younger brother, pointing out the mishap.
You got upset, accusing me of ruining the test, ruining everything. I snapped back a bit too sharply and told you to settle down. You raised your voice still louder to tell me to settle down before turning your face away and blinking back tears. Your mother intervened. She reminded me that you had just returned from Quebec. That you had been sick for most of the visit, missing out on activities with your friends. That your French-speaking “twin,” who had lived her whole life in a very small town, found it difficult to connect with you across the divides of language and culture. Your mother explained in a voice lowered just for me that you had felt removed from the family, and that this, right now, was supposed to be a moment of reconnection. “Can’t you get a grip?” she whispered.
It was well into spring before the results of the test were available. You had set up an electronic notification system, and when it was time you summoned us all to the home computer. In the crazily fluent way of your generation, you began clicking and typing and mouse-pad-dragging your way through pages of information. Your mother understood herself to be Scottish on both sides, and she was hoping for evidence of something a bit more “interesting” in her background, but she discovered not only that she is entirely European but also that, even as a multigenerational settler Canadian, she has a significantly greater percentage of “Great Britain and Ireland” ancestry than the average person actually residing within Great Britain and Ireland. “More British than the British,” I said, chuckling—perhaps a bit unwisely.
My own results were as expected. The two largest proportions of me are of “South Asian” and “Western and Central African” regional ancestry, although I apparently possess a sizable chunk of “Central Asian” ancestry, as well as proportions of “Polynesian,” “Scandinavian,” “Great Britain and Ireland,” and “North African.” Pointing out another percentage on the screen, I boasted to your mother that I had only about half as much Neanderthal DNA in me as the average human. “Surprising,” she said.
You continued to navigate the screens of information, and we discovered that I am very distantly related to certain “famous historical geniuses”: Abraham Lincoln, Charles Darwin, Maria Theresa, Copernicus, and Petrarch. I began to experience that complicated feeling that sometimes arrives when you and I are watching a popular movie or television show. We’ll be enjoying the story and the sheer glitz and polish of the production, but I will also be noticing the complexion of the actors and who gets to play particular roles, and I will wish to point this out but not want to ruin the fun. You clicked again, and we looked at the “heat maps” of my ancestry, my “paternal line” lighting up in orange and yellow almost all of Asia and Europe, and my “maternal line” lighting with concentrated color only the continent of Africa. I remember feeling chilled at that last image. But I remember, also, watching quietly the outline of the Americas, where generations of my ancestors had been born into lives of bondage and toil. Not a hint of color there. Not even the weakest indication of belonging.
In 1498, upon his third voyage to what he imagined were the Indies, Christopher Columbus experienced uncertainty about the prospect of safely hitting land. After frightening days staring only at a watery horizon, he purportedly spotted three mountaintops, and in thanks to the Holy Trinity named the island Trinidad. My parents, at least, don’t have any idea what three mountains Columbus might have seen. And so it is possible, as with all self-proclaimed discoverers of new lands and peoples, that Columbus saw only what he himself wished to see.
Trinidad was at that time densely populated by the Indigenous peoples the Arawak and the Caribs (from whom we get the name Caribbean). But through the brutalities of contact, the theft of resources, and European greed, many of them died and many were murdered. And soon after, another profound violence occurred. Over long centuries, African people were stolen from their homelands and transported across the Atlantic to work on plantations throughout the “New World,” and especially in Trinidad and other parts of the Caribbean, to feed the growing European addiction for what we might now call “real cane sugar.” An estimated ten to twelve million individuals were killed simply to make the business work. Many millions more survived for successive generations in conditions of living death. There is a story here of unimaginable cruelty and sorrow that we must nevertheless try to glimpse, not only because it is still an unrecognized human story but also because it is, in part, our story.
Recently, you proudly announced to us that you had read your first adult novel: Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes. It is a story about transatlantic slavery, though it is set in the U.S. and Canada, not the Caribbean. The book is told in the voice of a woman named Aminata, who as a child is stolen away from her family and community in Africa and with others shipped like cattle overseas. She bears witness to the murder of family members, friends, and acquaintances and to the lives of many more, including those of her very own children treated not as human beings but as property to be used and traded away. What helps her survive her terrible ordeals is a sense of herself as a djeli, a traditional teller and keeper of stories. Against the laws of the time, Aminata learns not only to read but also to write English, and thereby she comes to tell in her own voice a story of suffering but also of courage and resilience.
It is, in many ways, a discomforting novel for a girl of thirteen to read, and an essential one too. And what makes the experience extremely special is that you and your brother happen to know Aminata. Lawrence Hill gave his character the middle name of his oldest daughter. One day, when you were younger, he let me know that she was moving to Vancouver and would be in need of work to support her studies. Your mother and I were just then searching for childcare, since my parents had moved back to Toronto, and this is how you and your brother came to spend happy months with Geneviève Aminata Hill, one of the smartest and most radiant people we know. You could see, firsthand, why Lawrence was inspired to name his character after his eldest daughter.
There are other inspiring Black women in our life. Recently, we traveled to Toronto, just you and me, to attend a wedding between two of my dearest friends. You found yourself the only child in a restaurant filled with Black people and their friends, all laughing, eating, and carrying on. There were extravagant speeches. One of the toasters was a Black woman, a long-time organizer for the rights of Black people, queer people, and women and vulnerable workers in general. She raised her glass to the two newly married men, and she spoke of love and struggle and creativity as if they were natural and even necessary extensions of each other. At the end of her speech, she reminded us of a legacy. She called out the first names of writers, asking the crowd to remember and shout out the second. She called out Audre, and the crowd said, “Lorde.” She called out Toni, and the crowd said, “Morrison.” She called out Dionne, and this time you may have answered, “Brand.” I know that, with the exception of the last, you might not have recognized all of the names, but I hope someday you will.
After her speech, the celebration continued. There was a DJ and there was wild dancing. The women present, the most brilliant people I’ll ever know, kept asking you to dance with them. They were femme and butch, and they were cis and trans, and they were much, much more than I could see and attempt to describe, and they were all laughing at your athletic energy, and at the way you danced with quick feet and lifted arms, and also at the fact that, steaming hot though the place was, you wouldn’t for a moment take off your black leather jacket.
I think their desire to dance with you was a fierce insistence upon joy, and an expression of a still deeper commitment through thought and action against any power that would harm or control their bodies or yours. You have always been “a tough girl,” dearest daughter. You have never wanted help lifting something heavy; you have never admitted to anything being physically taxing, even when it was. You have never wanted me to conceal hard truths. I’ve actually confessed to you my fear, as a father, in admitting the following to you, and your response was, “But you must, because it matters.”
Remember how I felt chilled when we first viewed the heat map of my “maternal line”? Only the continent of Africa was lit up with concentrated color, although my mother also has European heritage, as does her own mother and grandmother and still more distant ancestors. In that moment with you, I feared that the heat map of my “maternal line” indicated a long historical legacy of exclusively Black mothers with the occasional possibility of white fathers, but in the decades and centuries before sexual consent was possible for Black women. I feared that I was seeing in graphic form our ancestry as a story of recurring sexual violence. Such violence is an indisputable fact; but so too is the story of Black women surviving against incredible odds. And this is why we must together remain close to the women who dance, and promise always to keep learning from them.
Excerpted from I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You by David Chariandy. Copyright © David Chariandy 2019. Published by Bloomsbury USA. Reprinted with permission.