Who’s Your (Irish) Daddy?

On St. Patrick's Day, Henry Louis Gates Jr. reflects on an unknown Irish ancestor.

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Getty Images

In one of my favorite Malcolm X speeches, the brilliant rhetorician asks, “What’s your name? It isn’t Smith or Jones or Bunche [as in Ralph] or Powell [as in Adam Clayton; Malcolm is playing the dozens here!]. They don’t have those kinds of names where we come from! What’s your name?” It might have shocked Malcolm to learn the complexity of the answer to that question, an answer buried deep in our collective DNA.

For hundreds of years, our ancestors have, sooner or later, wondered about our African roots: Where in Africa did your actual, original African male and female ancestor–the one who stepped off the boat after the nightmare of torture during the dreaded Middle Passage–come from? What ethnic group, or “tribe,” were they a part of? And, as Malcolm would have us question, what was our family’s original name, back on the Continent?

You might say that since 1977, when Alex Haley’s classic mini-series aired on ABC, many of us have had a most serious case of “Roots envy!” I know I certainly have. And my attempt to answer Malcolm’s challenging question led, by fits and starts, to my African American Lives and Faces of America series on PBS, as well as to the creation of a genetics ancestry company, African DNA, designed to help other black folks trace their family’s origins, deep into the African past.

Scientists can do this by analyzing your DNA (which they obtain from your saliva) on your mother’s mother’s mother’s line, and–if you are a man–on your father’s father’s father’s line. The former process tests your mitochondrial DNA (which you inherit like an identical genetic fingerprint from your mom), and a man’s y-DNA (again, which a male inherits from his father, who inherited that identical genetic signature from his father, and so on).

Well, here’s the shocker: If we tested all the black men, say, in the NBA, about 35 percent would trace their male ancestry back–not to Africa at all–but to Europe! That’s right: 35 percent of all African-American males descend from a white man, a white man who most probably impregnated a black female during slavery. And before I started the research for African American Lives, I had no idea that this was true. And many of these white male ancestors, it turns out, were Irish. (Ever wonder what part of Africa Shaquille O’Neal’s ancestors came from?!)

And that, as I learned to my enormous surprise right on camera, is the case with me, my father, and my brother, and our entire male line on the Gates side of our family tree.

>>Also on The Root: The Divide Between Blacks and The Irish

The oldest Gates that we can trace through genealogical records, through a paper trail, was named Jane Gates. She was a slave. She was born in about 1819 and died on Jan. 6, 1888. She was a nurse and a laundress. And she is my great-great grandmother. I keep a photograph of her hanging on the wall in my kitchen, right next to our family tree. Jane had five children, one of whom was named Edward Gates, also born in slavery, in 1857; he was my great grandfather. We have photographs of him, and unlike Jane, he looks like a white man. Either Jane refused to tell her children the name of their father, right up to her dying day, or the children refused to disclose their father’s identity. She only told them (they all look alike, by the way), that they had the same daddy. But she took his name and his identity with her to the grave.

Hoping to help solve this troubling mystery–family legend had it that the father of Jane’s children was a slave owner outside of Cumberland, Md., named Samuel Brady–I had my y-DNA tested. The results astonished everyone, including me: My y-DNA haplotype is R1b1b2ala2f2, also known as “the Ui Neil Haplotype.” At least 8 percent of all the men in Ireland share this same haplotype, and all of us descend from one man, a king named Niall of the Nine Hostages, who lived in Ireland around 500 A.D. (King Niall slept with a lot of women, which is why he has so many descendants.)

And one of those descendants fathered all five of Jane Gates’ children, including my great grandfather, Edward. We can think of him as an Irish “Malcolm Y.” His son, Edward St. Lawrence Gates, my grandfather, inherited his y-DNA, my father, Henry Louis Sr., inherited it from him, and I inherited it from my dad. On my paternal line, in other words, we are as Irish as Irish can get. By all rights, we should also be celebrating St. Patrick’s Day. Sorry about that, Brother Malcolm!