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Why Black history is my history

David Colburn
Posted 2/22/23

I’ll never forget the day in eighth grade when I was digging around through a box of my Dad’s college papers in the basement and came across a family tree he’d done. There was a …

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Why Black history is my history


I’ll never forget the day in eighth grade when I was digging around through a box of my Dad’s college papers in the basement and came across a family tree he’d done. There was a moment of excitement when I discovered that Edward Winslow Colburn was a direct descendant of Edward Winslow, a passenger on the Mayflower and three-time governor of Plymouth Colony.
“Wow, I’m descended from someone on the Mayflower!” I thought.
And then a moment later, my excitement evaporated. Dad was descended from someone on the Mayflower, but biologically I was not. For I was adopted.
Decades later, thanks to Ancestry DNA testing, I now know that I have an ancestor who came to the Americas on a very different kind of ship – a slave ship.
I started a search for my biological roots quite serendipitously. I was a 40-year-old college professor helping a student with a research project on adoption when I stumbled across the adoption forums on America Online. After discovering hundreds of posts for searchers from California, where I was born, I decided to try to confirm some information my mother had told me and put up a post of my own. Within hours I had multiple responses confirming my birth mother’s married and maiden names, and I was off and walking down the path. I say walking because if I’d have been running, I’d have unlocked the majority of information I was looking for in a matter of weeks. But each new revelation was followed by weeks and months of wondering about what I was doing and whether I should take the next step or not.
When I finally wrote to my birth mother and received a response, I got two surprises. The first was that her handwriting was almost identical to mine. The second was that my biological father was not the man she’d named in the records, it was someone else, a young hairdresser with a Portuguese surname with whom she’d had a fling. I was lucky enough to find a family tree online with his name, a tree that traced back to the founding of Santa Barbara, Calif., my birthplace. My ancestor Ildefonso Dominguez was a member of the Spanish company that built the Santa Barbara Presidio. It wasn’t the Mayflower, but it still felt pretty cool to be connected to a landmark historical event.
In 2018, I decided to see if I could unequivocally establish a link to this side of my heritage through DNA testing, and the results gave me that confirmation, matches with numerous relatives directly linked to my birthfather.
But the results held many surprises. I’d expected to see stronger Portuguese and German ties. They were there, but much smaller than my ties to England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and northwestern Europe. I have tiny bits of DNA from Sweden and Norway. Six percent of my DNA is Indigenous American, from the southern California area, unexpected but not odd given where and when my ancestors lived.
But the biggest surprise was finding out that I was two-percent Black, from Mali and the Congo region of Africa. There was nothing in what I’d discovered about my biological lineage to that point that could explain it.
Keenly curious about this revelation, I started doing more digging, which led me to Mexico and its three centuries of African slavery.
While Spaniards in the New World were not permitted to engage in the slave trade directly, in the 1500s the Spanish Crown contracted with other European nations to supply slaves to their colonies, including New Spain, which we know now as Mexico. Mali, in West Africa, and the surrounding Atlantic coastal region was the major source of slaves taken to New Spain, primarily for agricultural labor and to work in mines. Natives from the Congo had previously migrated to the Mali region, likely accounting for that genetic thread. Africans, it was said, were harder workers than the Indigenous people of Mexico, although the need for African labor was created because the Indigenous population was decimated by 19 epidemics of diseases brought by the Spaniards. About 200,000 African slaves were taken to Mexico, 80,000 of them women, beginning as early as the 1520s. Under Spanish law, slaves were allowed to marry whom they wished, and there was extensive intermarriage with the Indigenous population. The children of such marriages were considered free. Spanish masters also raped African female slaves, and a rigid caste system was formed based on racial mixture. But the Mexican economy was not quite as dependent on slave labor as the American South, and by 1829 slavery was abolished in Mexico. The later Mexican Revolution placed higher emphasis on the country’s European and Indigenous roots, pushing the story of the slave trade and Afromexicans (who include some descendants of slaves who escaped to Mexico from America) deep into the shadows, and it was only eight years ago, in 2015, that the national census finally included a category to indicate one’s African heritage. Today, while the government has officially recognized Afromexicans as significant contributors to the nation’s history, the community still encounters racism, inequity, and relative invisibility in Mexican culture. And indeed, the community more closely identifies with “Black” and related terms than they do with the term Afromexican.
Through Ildefonso Dominguez’s wife, Maria, I had an established ancestral foothold in the Sinaloa region of Mexico, a region in colonial days that was estimated to be two-thirds African descent, perhaps since mining was a significant part of the economy there that would have needed slave labor. Born in 1743, I could document Maria’s Indigenous heritage in the region back two generations, leaving many generations in the past where one of her ancestors could have married an African slave. I think that’s the most likely explanation of the source of my African DNA.
It appears impossible to know anything specific about my Black ancestor outside of race, but it is a sobering and sad thing to think that somewhere in time one of my ancestors was enslaved, suffering the horror of capture and hideous slave boat conditions beyond my imagination. But my ancestor obviously endured, surviving that ordeal only to face another as a slave on a plantation, a ranch, or perhaps in a mine. Was my Black ancestor a woman or a man? What was marriage and family life like, if there was any? Is it possible my DNA comes not from Maria’s side, but from a biological ancestor of Ildefonso? The questions go on and on, with the only answers generic and entirely speculative, though extrapolated from historical facts.
But my DNA test took Black history from conceptual to personal. A piece of my history is akin to that of African Americans whose ancestors were brought here as slaves. It’s history, but it makes my heart ache in the present over man’s inhumanity to man, and over the tendrils of that inhumanity that decades and centuries later continue to diminish our society in insidious ways.
Contrary to what many conservatives would have you believe, there’s nothing “woke” about that. It’s documented historical fact with repercussions in modern day America that some conservatives are trying to sweep under the rug with a broom of revisionist denialism. Nearly half of Republicans in a 2021 Monmouth University poll said they don’t approve of teaching the history of racism in schools. That’s a direct denial of the actual history experienced by millions of their fellow Americans. Racism and its effects are as much American history as the Founding Fathers, who embedded slavery in the Constitution, and it takes little more than a glance at social media to discover it infects elite and common folk alike in the here and now. My history is tied to that history, both as a descendant of a slave and as a member of the privileged White class that propagated it in this country, and it should be taught and understood in its entirety and not dismissed as a historical aberration. We will never realize our ideals as “one nation” until we reconcile with our past. That’s this slave descendant’s contribution to Black History Month.