DNA and our hunt for a more colorful origin story

person with body painting

Origin stories aren’t always as colorful as we could wish. Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Pexels.com

Every fan of superheroes knows what an origin story is. Every birthday, we celebrate our origin stories. I tell my kids about the day they were born. How I was feeling, how I knew when it was time to go to the hospital, how long I waited there. What the weather was like. How it felt to hold them for the first time. That’s their origin story.

But recently, science—possibly junk science, depending on who you listen to—has made it possible to find out a bit more about your origin story. And which one of us doesn’t hope we can add a little to our origin story by exploring this avenue?

A little color.

Like many others, I have always been told there is Cherokee blood in my ancestry. I remember visiting Cherokee, N.C., as a child. We have pictures somewhere of Native Americans (we called them Indians back then) in full tribal headdress. My mother bought me a little doll from one of the gift shops. A little girl in a fringed leather dress with a feather in her black braids. I loved that doll. I dreamed about one day being a part of that all-too-colorful heritage (if you go back to Cherokee now, you’ll find a much more down-to-earth and realistic celebration of a wonderful civilization). The Tsalagi (Cherokee, originally Aniyunwiya) of North Carolina are the remainder of the proud nation who were forced West on the Trail of Tears by white men, the ones who clung to their traditions and the little bit of land they could lawfully acquire while their families and neighbors were forced on a journey many of them didn’t make it through.

Colorful, tragic, and beautiful. I always wanted it to be true that there was Cherokee blood in my veins because surely it ran a deeper vermillion than the European blood I knew was there.

And yet, when I had my DNA ancestry tested, I came up just about as lily white as can be. 71% England, Wales (this is vaguely interesting) and Northwestern Europe, 27% Ireland and Scotland, and 2% Sweden. Not unexpected at all, but it might have been nice to find something more exotic in my DNA.

I’ve accepted this lily whiteness and the blood that my ancestors have left on my hands. I belong to the most brutal of all races. White Europeans. The ones who destroyed the peaceful civilizations they found in North America and enslaved Africans to work they land they stole.

I saw in today’s news that Elizabeth Warren is being criticized for publicizing the DNA results which showed she has some portion of Native American ancestry in her origin story. Republicans don’t believe her, Native Americans say it’s problematic that she is claiming this ancestry and, hey, why the heck has she not been advocating for Native Americans all along if she wants to believe she’s one of them?

The answer is, I believe, a fairly simple one. All us white folks want to believe we’ve got something special about us. Some of us know we belong to a brutal race and wish we could be one of those our ancestors tortured to ease our guilt. That group includes me and Senator Warren. You’ve got nothing really to fear from us because we see a nobility in your suffering and perseverance. But the others of us want to believe their race is lily white because it’s superior. They won out over all other races not through brutality but because they were chosen. Those are the ones we should all fear.

Origin Stories: They’re not just for Superheroes!

Yesterday was one of my kids’ birthdays. I found myself thinking (and talking) all day about the day he was born. I’m going to tell you the story and I beg you to bear with me because there is a point to it.

It was snowy and cold up in Baltimore and I had been feeling bad all day, but I wasn’t supposed to be in labor yet. It was a month too early! But my husband called the doctor anyway, and he suggested we just stop by the hospital to be checked out. Better safe than sorry. We figured we’d stop by Taco Bell and pick up dinner on the way home, then cuddle up in our cozy apartment with our four-year-old son and watch “The Simpsons”.

Well, I was in labor. Long story short, they decided to stop the labor so while they fed me drugs intravenously, my husband braved the snow and took our son to the Eastern Shore to stay with his Granny. The labor stopped and I was discharged the next morning with instructions to rest. I did, but the pains started again that evening and in the early morning hours, I woke my husband and we went to the hospital again and a few hours later, my blessedly healthy five-pound son was born.

This is a story like many others. My friends and I used to get together at play dates and swap birth stories. I find myself telling these stories to strangers and acquaintances who probably don’t get why it’s so important to me and are probably hiding yawns as a I tell them.

So why is this story so interesting to me? Because it’s an origin story. Not just my son’s origin story, but the story of how I became a mom of two (the story of how I became a mom of three is another one for another time!). I love origin stories. The one book of the Bible that I have actually read and studied is Genesis. “In the beginning…” is a magical phrase for me. I think these stories are important to me because they preserve where we came from, and that’s what stories were originally intended to do.

We are made up of our origin stories. How we became who we are. Parents, writers, sons, daughters…whatever you are, you have an origin story or two or three. Probably many all intertwined like leaves and vines. We are who we are because of our stories, so the next time your mother bores you with her story of your birth or your grandfather tells you for the umpteenth time what it was like when he was a kid, listen with an ear pressed to the ground. It’s your origins—your roots—that you’re hearing.