The results of my mother’s DNA test came via a short email with a link. I spent a few minutes trying to recall my password, and finally logged in. A quick wave of anxiety passed over me. I knew it wasn’t going to be a revelation. In my brokeness, I only had purchased the most basic test. It would not reveal specifics, so no racial background on her parents. Nothing on ethnicities like the likelihood she has ancestors from Sierra Leone, Syria or Spain.
This test reveals race: European, sub-Saharan African, East Asian, and Indigenous American. There is a statistical breakdown with percentages. It’s not exact, but in the ballpark, give or take a few points.
I had spent the past two months imagining the results. Friends chimed in, too. My friend Marqui figured 15% Indigenous American, 15% European, and 70% sub-Saharan African. Jos had guessed some Native American, African and then speculated on various European countries (over the years, a number of our Italian-American friends have adopted her; growing up in Montclair, NJ, many assumed some Sicilian). My mother never really wagered. She continued to say “some mix,” as she has repeated ad infinitum since she could talk.
My mother’s racially ambiguous appearance has kept her in a somewhat influx state. She seems to be like one of those holographic comic trading cards from the 80s or those inkblot cards. Depending on the viewer, their vantage point, the setting or any other variable, Mom has been any and everything. Redbone Black, Greek, Cuban, Puerto Rican, Jewish, Indian, Creole.
I remember once, when I was five, a very confusing incident at Pathmark. Mom had told me and Jos we could have a free sample of cheese from the lady at the end of the aisle handing them out. We walked down to her and asked kindly for ours. The white female employee with the brown feathered hair and large glasses explained our mom would have to consent. I told her she had, but the lady wouldn’t budge. I told her we’d go back over and ask again. I did, and Mom, still digging through her purse for coupons, again said yes.
We ran back over and the woman, who had been watching us, was frowning. And maybe a bit angry, too. Undaunted, I repeated my niceties expecting the cubed cheese as all the other customers had. Instead, she said nastily, “Little girl, don’t lie to me. *That* is NOT your mother.” I was stunned. Her tone was so very ugly, I still remember this incident to this day, twenty-five years later. I had never been called a liar before, especially by a grownup… well, except for Joe and big brothers don’t count when hurling such labels. I tried to explain that the woman was indeed my mom, but she shook her head defiantly and stared at me and three year old Jos.
I was very confused and a little scared, so we went back to mom who at that point was very upset that we hadn’t just got the dang cheese while clearly everyone else had. She marched us over to the stand, and the woman’s tone was sweet as pie with her. My mom must’ve realized what was really happening, and she said, with her little sing-song soprano voice, that we were her girls and yes, we could have the sample. I noticed, though, my mom’s face was dead serious and one eyebrow was raised. My mom was mad. The lady quickly offered all three of us apologies and samples and coupons.
It took a few years to realize that in feathered hair lady’s personal Rorschach test, my mom was white and could not possibly have two little brown daughters.
Opinions are subjective, but DNA isn’t. It turns out, Mom is a near 50-50 split of European and sub-Saharan African. She’s White AND Black, like Lenny Kravitz, Halle Berry, Alicia Keys, Barack Obama. I asked her how she’d now answer if someone asked her race. “Mixed.” I burst out laughing. “Mom, that’s what you’ve always said!” She laughed, too, and said, “Well, it’s true!”
I realized then that despite how so many others have viewed her, despite even 21st century DNA tests, my mom has always known who she is. Mixed, mulatto, oreo, yellow, whatever. She’s Doris Williams Flemming, proud mother and ecstatic grandmother, child of God. Those are the labels she proudly wears and displays for all to see.
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