Editor’s note: This article was originally published April 21, 2014. For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black-history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these “amazing facts” are an homage.
Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 76: What’s the truth behind the legend in many African-American families about having a Native American ancestor?
Zora Neale Hurston once wrote with characteristic irony that she thought she was “the only Negro in the United States whose grandfather on the mother’s side was not an Indian chief.” Like most African Americans I’ve interviewed, I was raised believing that one of my great-great-grandmothers was all or part Native American, with “high cheekbones and straight black hair.”
In my family, this was gospel. No one even thought about the possibility that it might not be true, since—sure enough—there were plenty of people on my family tree, as family photos attested about those who had passed, who did in fact have those proverbial and much-valued cheekbones and some variation of that long and silky straight black hair. What struck me about our mysterious Native American ancestry, even as a child, was how very important it was to my mother’s 11 siblings, and how just as important it was to my dozens of cousins.
Being “part Indian” was a much discussed and much bragged about aspect of the Coleman family’s collective identity, even if no one was certain when or how these American Indians had entered our family tree, where they had mated with our black ancestors or from what tribe they hailed. I once asked my Uncle David, our meticulous family historian, what tribe we should tell people we were part of. “Cherokee,” he replied, as if self-evident. When I pointed out that the Cherokee lived in what is now Georgia, the Carolinas and East Tennessee, my uncle responded, unflappably, “That’s right—it was the Iroquois.”
I admire a person who can improvise on his feet. But the problem with that answer is that we happen to be able to trace the various branches of the Coleman family to the middle of the 18th century, and since those ancestors all lived in a 30-mile radius of my hometown of Piedmont, W.Va., the likelihood of one of them being an Iroquois was about as likely as her being a Cherokee (in other words, zip!). Well, we might not know what tribe we came from, but we had ancestors who possessed those cheekbones and that hair, and that—and the strength of family lore—was quite enough.
I wish you could have seen my inbox the morning after the episode of African American Lives aired in 2008, in which we revealed my genetic admixture. To my own surprise, I have to confess, the results showed that I had a surprisingly high amount of European ancestry (50.5 percent) but only 0.8 percent Native American ancestry. (I am 48.2 percent sub-Saharan African.) No one seemed to mind all that white ancestry, but the low level of Native American ancestry caused something of a family crisis. I thought my computer was going to explode. I didn’t realize I had so many cousins who were so deeply committed to being “part Indian.” And the venom those emails contained! These were some very angry cousins.
“Skippy, how could you embarrass our family like that, in front of the nation?” ran one line of attack, while another questioned the accuracy of the tests. “That test is one big fat lie.” After all, Big Mom herself had told us all about her Indian ancestry, and how could “science” be more authoritative than Big Mom, your own grandmother. Boy. Then followed the mountain of photographs of our ancestors that my cousins sent, demonstrating, prima facie, that all you had to do was to look at those faces and that hair to know that that test wasn’t worth a bucket of spit, the same spit geneticists used to analyze your DNA in the first place. You need to correct these aspersions you have cast on our family, Skippy. Right now.
I would soon learn that my cousins’ reactions were typical of the reactions I get all across the country when I lecture about our people’s genetic composition. When I ask black people to raise their hands if they believe they have significant amounts of Native American ancestry, almost everyone raises their hands. Here are the facts, according to geneticists Joanna Mountain and Kasia Bryc at 23andMe: The average African American is 73 percent sub-Saharan, 24 percent European and only 0.7 percent Native American.
So most of us have quite a lot of European ancestry and very, very little Native American ancestry. And if this Native American DNA came from exactly one ancestor, it surfaced in our family trees quite a long time ago—on average, perhaps as many as 10 generations, or 300 years, ago, which means about 1714. (This date is very important in terms of the numbers of Africans who had even arrived in the United States by then, and I will return to this point when I try to explain why most of us don’t have much Native American ancestry.)