23&MEPosted on December 14, 2021
About ten years ago my aunt covered a story that explored our family ancestry and history on behalf of CNN. She uncovered the origins of our African and European roots as well as some personal narratives of ancestors whose names we only knew of. It was enlightening, inspiring, and surprising. I immediately thought of her piece after reading Bayo Akomolafe’s When You Meet the Monster, Anoint Its Feet. As he talked about the performative nature of DNA sequencing and the drivers behind its popularity, it made me think about the value I assign to my ancestral identity and origin story.
It’s strange being Black – to be othered in your own home, and unattached to the place people tell you that “you’re really from.” Maybe our origin story begins in South Carolina and not Guinea Bissau or in Mississippi and not Scotland. This could very well be the “beautiful betweenness” that Akomolafe spoke of in his piece. The Black American experience could be a pendant on the gold chain that Obatala descended from. A stop on the way from one destination to another. As structural racism and classism call for hard definitions and order, the muddied identities of people with mixed ancestry threaten the status quo. My great grandmother was a proud Black woman who was white appearing at first glance. My great-great grandfather was born and slave and died as a landowner. My family upholds syncretic traditions: combining Judeo-Christian beliefs with Afro-Indigenous ones. We are not one thing or another, but rather a plethora of plethoras. Shaking the system, our transatlantic identity transcends paradigms.
Earlier this week I was struggling to come up with a topic for this piece. I always assign greater meaning to the last of something. My mom raised me on the advice to always “finish strong.” To sort out my thoughts and to reflect on this course with a clear mind, I went on a walk. I walked a little farther than usual this time, enjoying Cuban music in preparation for my research this summer. Starting in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, I made my way to the entry way of the Brooklyn Bridge and impulsively – with no concept of time – began to walk across the trembling concrete that shook with dramatic ferocity as trains passed beside me. The wind picked up and all of a sudden, I started to feel nervous and uncertain. I turned my music down. Inching toward the apex of the bridge, the thought of turning around and taking a warm shower started to sound appealing – this pilgrimage had not on my agenda for the day. That said, something told me it would be worth it and my mom’s advice to “finish strong” ran through my mind again. Eventually, I made it to the top. I stood in a supportive stance, with my knees slightly bent and my feet about a couple of feet apart. Breathing shallow breaths, I looked out over the East River. Fortunately, it had all been worth it.
On my 23rd birthday, my mom (the bearer of all good advice) tucked a folded magazine cut out in my birthday card. It was from one of her favorite magazines, The Science of Mind, and the title of the passage for August 2nd, 2021 was “Face the Unknown.” In it, the authors talk about the importance of trekking through unchartered territory with faith in the spirit as a guiding force. The final line of the piece quotes Emmet Fox and says, “Do it trembling, if you must, but do it.”
It is strange to be 23 – too old to stay in the nest but too young to know what direction to fly in. There are some days that I wake up and think to myself with profound doubt, “what the HELL am I doing?” Sometimes that thought is muted by purpose and belonging, and other times it is deafening when I stray away from my comfort zone. On the bridge, I felt the weight of my confusion and out-of-placeness, but also came to realize the beauty of serendipity and unknown territory.
Much like Obatala descending from the heavens on a gold chain to the terrestrial, being 23 feels like falling from the dream-like world of childhood to the reality of adulthood. The beautiful betweenness of this period of the life is facing the many unknowns – regardless of how terrifying they may be. With the opportunity to muddy the version of myself assigned to and adopted by me, there is space for new versions of who I am to emerge. As a descendant of a long line of resilient people – with the power to turn nothing into everything – I have faith in the spirit, our spirit, to lead the way.
Akomolafe, Bayo. “When You Meet the Monster, Anoint Its Feet.” Emergence
Magazine, 31 Mar. 2021, https://emergencemagazine.org/essay/when-you-
Elam, Stephanie. CNN: Reporter Traces Roots to Africa, CNN, 4 Nov. 2010,
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6zDIEfZ2cNo. Accessed 14 Dec. 2021.
Meadows, Donella H. Thinking in Systems: A Primer. Chelsea Green Publishing, 2015.
23andMe. “About Us.” 23andMe, https://www.23andme.com/about?bst=pff.