On St. Patrick's Day, Henry Louis Gates Jr. reflects on an unknown Irish ancestor.
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.
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!
So how do we find this guy? Well, this is where the fun starts. Our genealogist, Jane Ailes, has spent that last few years trying to find the name of the man who owned Jane Gates. She has searched wills, inventory and appraisals, account settlements for estates of slave owners between 1820 and 1860 in Allegany County, Md., and nearby Hampshire County, W.Va., and the Slave Schedule of the 1850 and 1860 federal censuses for those same counties (remember that her son, Edward, was born in 1857). So far, no luck with the paper trail.
There were a lot of white people living in Allegany County in 1850, some 21,633. A ton of Irishmen moved into the Cumberland area in the 1830s and 1840s to work on the railroad, and in the mining, glass and steel industries, and in the 1850s to work on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal. (In 1850, in Allegany County, there were only 724 slaves, and 412 "free colored.") Like finding a needle in a haystack, right?
Well, it turns out that the men sharing that Ui Neill haplotype tended to have certain surnames. If we use those surnames, we narrow the number of possibilities in Allegany and Hampshire counties to 178 men born between 1800 and 1830 bearing 22 surnames.
What's so exciting about this? Well, it turns out that the men in the Gates family line have a particular mutation, a slight variation, in our Ui Neill haplotype. And we inherited that slight mutation, a spelling variant in that DNA signature, through one of those 178 guys. If the father of Jane's children, my Irish great-great grandfather, has any other male descendants walking around on the planet, he will have exactly the same y-DNA signature, with this particular variant, as my father, brother and I do.
And so, we are advertising for any male descendant of one of these 178 men to contact us and take the DNA test. With a (wee) bit of luck, one of the millions of unsolved genealogical mysteries facing African Americans today can be solved.
Malcolm Little took the last name of "X" because he said it signified our lost last names, names buried deep within the African continent. For me, St. Patrick's Day, one of the most joyous holidays up here in Boston, is the day I spend contemplating another "X" than the one Malcolm identified: the name of my white great-great grandfather, the man who fathered one black woman's five children, the man who connects me (and millions of other black men) to a lost Irish heritage just as surely as other ancestors on my family tree connect me to Africa. Did he rape her? Did she love him? Could such a relationship ever be defined as love? Did she see him following slavery? Did he give her the $1,400 to purchase a home in a white neighborhood in 1870, just five years after slavery ended? What was that all about? Until I can answer these questions, I'll remain on the sidelines at the St. Patrick's Day parade.
Henry Louis Gates Jr. is editor-in-chief of The Root.