Criticism — From the June 2014 issue

America’s Ancestry Craze

Making sense of our family-tree obsession

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Although I’m mostly European and most of my matches are, too, some are not. It’s impossible to estimate what percentage of my predicted cousins are of predominantly African ancestry, because 23andMe only allows me to see the information each match permits, but as is the case with many if not most descendants of slaveholders — and I descend from a few — that percentage is far from nominal. Slavery did so much to erase records of the personhood of its victims that, so far, I haven’t been able to identify a precise common ancestor with a single African-American match.

Matthew Ware, one of my predicted third to sixth cousins, is a physics professor at Grambling State University. 23andMe breaks his genome down by region to 53 percent European ancestry, 43.6 percent sub-Saharan ancestry, 0.5 percent East Asian or Native American, and 2.9 percent unassigned. At first, engaging in the sort of quasi-magical associative thinking people often tend toward where DNA and ancestry are involved, I assumed he was a relative through my father’s side, because of their shared interest in science, a common connection to Mississippi, and even, I thought, Ware’s physical resemblance to my father himself. In fact, though, he matches me through my mother. He’s learned that he’s descended from a Revolutionary War hero, a former slave, and an exiled Scottish rebel.

Another possible third to sixth cousin, Deborah Hampton-Miller, is a writer working on her second book. “I believe that gift runs in the family (bloodline),” she told me in an email. Hampton-Miller is of predominantly sub-Saharan ancestry (77 percent, plus 16.6 percent European, 2.3 percent East Asian, and 1.8 percent Native American). Because she doesn’t share genes with my mom, we must be related through my dad. So far we haven’t been able to link up our trees.

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