Bob Neal

“Luo,” the actress and writer said. Lupita Nyong’o was answering a question about her ethnic origin.

“I can say that to you,” Nyong’o told Henry Louis Gates Jr., meaning that Dr. Gates, a scholar on Africa, would know of the Luo tribe of East Africa. He was profiling her on the PBS program “Finding Your Roots,” which digs up and explores family trees.

The Luo are the fourth largest ethnicity in Kenya, where Nyong’o grew up. You may know her for winning an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress for playing Patsey, an enslaved woman who befriended the lead character in “Twelve Years a Slave.”

Though Gates’s question was not intended to point out a deep truth about American life, it did. At least to me.

That deep truth is that, given our unique and brutal history, the majority of Black folks here can’t trace their ethnicity, even though Africa may have as many or more ethnicities than anywhere else. After all, humans have existed in Africa longer than anywhere else.

Enslaved people were listed in the U.S. Census only by first name and age. Their only identity was “slave” and “Negro” or “mulatto.” Their descendants who try to find family roots planted earlier than 1865 usually find a dead end.

Now, with DNA tracing, much of that can change. African-Americans who pony up 100 or so bucks can learn their tribal and regional origin and may even be able to identify direct ancestors. But like most meaningful change, this will arrive slowly. Meanwhile, most of us will not know any more about the origin of those citizens than the continent, Africa.

Virtually all of our other ethnicities can be broken down, depending on how deeply you want to go, into country, state or province, even city or village. And knowing our origin matters to a great many of us.

There may be at least two points of view about slicing and dicing ourselves down from antiquity. The one to which we give louder voice is the melting pot. Put all of us into a boiling cauldron, and when it’s done cooking, we all come out the same. The other is the cultural mosaic, in which we say, Let’s make a piece of art out of hundreds of tiles and see what we have when we’re done. And, of course, we’re never done.

The Midwestern writer Paul Gruchow celebrates our smaller ethnicities because to look at ourselves only as “Black” or “white” or “Hispanic” or “Asian” can lead to dangerous generalizations. He put it this way. If we imagine that all whites are basically the same, “Then we are free to magnify the differences between whites and the rest of humanity. And we are also free either to glorify or to vilify white history but not to see it as merely one among many variations of the human story.”

I’d go a step beyond Gruchow and say that when we see one people — say, white — as the norm, we can easily come to see everyone else as different and even inferior. Then it’s a short step to seeing whites as not only separate but superior. And seeing ourselves as superior may leave us just a short step from storming the U.S. Capitol to try to reverse an election outcome we don’t like. An election result in which, by the way, most voters not of white European origin voted heavily against those who are of white European origin.

When we see America as scores — even hundreds — of ethnicities, the picture is a lot more fluid. Irish. Kikuyu. Taiwanese. Salvadoran. Swedish. Ebo. Iraqi. German. Japanese. Portuguese. Ethiopian. And a lot more interesting.

These distinctions were mostly lost on me for years. I held the standard view of the great melting pot. “After all, we’re all Americans.” And we are. But we’re more than that, too. Today, I’m fonder of the idea of the cultural mosaic, the idea that underpins all of Canada’s multi-culturalism.

My mother reared us to believe we are Scottish and English. But my younger sister in Florida, who has been working for decades on our family genealogy, sent her DNA to two testing companies, ancestry.com and myheritage.com.

Here’s what she learned. We are much more varied than just Scottish and English. Our ancestry comes, in fact, from Northern British Isles, 73.5%; Scandinavia, 19.4%; Ashkenazi (European, most likely Ukranian) Jew, 1.8%; Middle East (possibly Sephardic Jew), 3.0%; North African (also possibly Sephardic Jew), 1.2%; and Nigeria, 1.1%.

Pretty much garden variety mongrels. That is to say, American, though still pretty heavily Scottish and English and Celtic and Scandinavian. I really want to know more about those one or two or three Jewish sources and, especially, the Nigerian source.

Vive mes differences.

Bob Neal’s older sister converted to Judaism in 1955. All of this makes him wonder if something in her genetics told her she was returning to one of the family roots. Neal can be reached at [email protected]


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