The Brown Body
Reading Time: 4 minutes
"The Brown Body" originally appeared in Issue 19 of Tahoma Literary Review. What are any of us hoping to see when we spit in a tube and mail it off to 23andMe? For Herb Harris, the results inspire him to reflect upon race, heritage, and living in his own body.
Our family colors are beige, mocha, café au lait, and umber. The complexions of my cousins, parents, and grandparents fill every shade of the spectrum between black and white. In our faces, one can see lips that are broad or thin, cheekbones that are high or low, noses that are sharp and aquiline or broad and Nubian. We have hair that may be coarse and tightly curled or silky-straight. It might be blonde, jet-black, or anywhere in between. Our eyes might be deep-set, protuberant, almond-shaped, up- or downturned. Their color might be green, blue, amber, or deep brown. Our physical features mixed and recombined over many generations; we are the children of slavery.
This peculiar institution made every kind of exploitation possible. With little to constrain it, the sexual exploitation of slaves was brutal and widespread. We sometimes build romantic mythologies around figures like Thomas Jefferson to sanitize this history. Mostly, it was just rape. We were coerced into being, and the law made us the property of our lawless fathers. My family conspicuously manifests this aspect of slavery. We differ from other black families only in the variety of features and complexions passed from generation to generation. Our white ancestors would probably not be pleased to see so much of themselves, bearing witness to their misdeeds. Each time I look at myself in the mirror, a host of victims and perpetrators returns my gaze.
What did I expect to learn about this strange heritage by spitting in a tube? I was a reluctant latecomer to the world of DNA-based genealogy. But curiosity overcame my misgivings, and I found myself dropping a DNA sample in the mail. When a few weeks later an email notified me that my results were ready, my hands trembled as I logged in to the 23andMe website. I navigated through the site, which contained many tables, figures, color-coded pie charts, and world maps. I learned that my ancestors had lived in Britain, Ireland, Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Spain, and France. It was dizzying to try to imagine all the people and stories behind this list. I read through the numbers that represented the percentages of my ancestry that corresponded to each of these regions. Their significance only gradually sunk in. Although I could not positively identify any of my white ancestors, seventy percent of my heritage came from Europe, and about thirty percent from Africa.
Given my light complexion, I should not have been surprised that I had such a large proportion of European heritage. But I was sure that I had no white ancestors since the times of slavery. My family had lived in a segregated black community for generations. I had always identified as black. Everyone in my family identified as black. How was it possible that more than two-thirds of my ancestry was white? I felt as if every cell in my body contained a foreign substance. Black or white? Which was alien? Which was the host? The proportions of my ancestry are far from the averages of either white- or black-identified populations. In our bell-curve-shaped world, I am a double outlier, impossible to classify.
I have beige skin, loosely curly brown hair, an angular nose, thin lips, and brown almond-shaped eyes. I never know how others read my racially ambiguous appearance. Most of the time, I am mistaken for some ethnic variant of a broadly construed whiteness. The burden generally falls on me to announce that I am a black man. This assertion often evokes looks of confusion and disbelief.
After several hours exploring the DNA-analysis website, my eyes glazed over. I was reading words, but they were not registering. I was randomly clicking links with no idea where I had come from or where I was going. The masses of information before me were not answering my questions. My gaze finally turned away from the screen and came to rest on a collection of family photographs that I kept on my desk.
The oldest of these was a tin Daguerreotype of my grandfather’s grandfather—a slave from Virginia named Herbert Harris. I was named after him, but I knew very little about him, and nothing about his parents. His mixed features were evident, even in the grainy image. Beside him was a photograph of my grandfather’s other grandfather, Charles Wilder, a slave from South Carolina. I knew nothing about his parents either, but his mixed features were as much in evidence. I had a couple of pictures of my great grandparents, and a picture of my grandfather proudly wearing his World War I uniform. Next to this was my father in his World War II uniform. The lineage continued down to my daughters.
The six generations before me represented frozen moments in a very long history. The photographs were like still frames in a film that had been running for centuries. In every face, I could see some physical manifestation of racial ambiguity. Whether in grainy black-and-white or high-resolution color, the subtle gradations of tones, textures, and features were always apparent. The fugitive images of my family turned race into a continuum that seemed to vanish with time.
But race has not vanished. Its edges have hardened. We have made this illusory concept more real each day. It is a contradiction that inhabits every corner of our society. It is a contradiction that lives inside my body, a sharp blade cleaving one part of myself from another. Race is paradox made flesh.
Harris had this to say about his piece:
I had no idea what to expect when I sent my sample off to 23andMe. The results showed that Britain, Ireland, and northern Europe accounted for about seventy percent of my ancestry. The problem is that I am black. I inherited a light complexion from my slave-owning ancestors, but I grew up in a black family in a segregated neighborhood in a world that defined me as black. These numbers did not change anything, but they became one more part of myself that I struggled to make sense of.
Herb Harris is a psychiatrist currently working on a memoir. Find him at herbertwharris.com.