“Arl a we is one family.” All of us are one family.
If you were raised in Montserrat, you heard that phrase often. It happened when you brought a friend home. It happened when you introduced your parents to that special someone.
Since, I tested my DNA with 23andMe, the close blood ties we share as Montserratians have become even more real.
My wife bought me a 23andMe kit for my 57th birthday. It sat under the Christmas tree unopened long after my December birthday. This stocking stuffer was a no-brainer. I am the son of a married father and a single mother. Both were West Indian immigrants in 1960s London.
My life and my work is a constant search for identity and belonging. Who I am and where I come from are two questions that always haunt me.
23andMe requires the kit holder to deposit an ample sample of saliva into a sealed tube, register the kit number by email and drop the kit off at the post office. I did so in late January and waited. A few days later an email arrived. My saliva sample was inadequate. I needed a do over.
I waited. News arrived by gmail. I had more than nine hundred DNA relatives on record. I knew none of them — at first.
The scientific results only triggered more questions. Based on my DNA, I am 97 percent Subsaharan African and 3 percent European.
87 percent West African.
54.2 percent Nigerian.
23.4 percent Ghanaian, Liberian and Sierra Leonean.
4.3 percent Senegambian, Guinean.
5.3 percent broadly West African.
7.2 percent Congolese Southern Eastern Africa.
6.3 percent Congolese and Angolan.
2 percent Irish/British.
The numbers surprised me. I expected SubSaharan African to be my dominant gene. However, given my surname — Skerritt, inherited from my maternal grandfather, whose father was said to be pretty light-skinned, I expected to be more Irish.
What is most fascinating is the long list of DNA relatives stretching from Trinidad, to Haiti, to Jamaica, to South Carolina, Alabama, Utah and England.
I discovered a former classmate from Montserrat Secondary School was a distant cousin.
Some of my DNA relatives were in my own house.
One day last fall, my wife called me. She was at lunch. She had just read a text from her younger sister. Bev had just recently received her 23andMe DNA results. The kit was a birthday present from my wife. She didn’t want to know her DNA. Friends and strangers often say we look like we are related. She feared the results would prove them right.
She did the next best thing. She bought one for her younger sister. Unlike me, they share both mother and father. Although I have six siblings, I am an only child. I am the only child of my mother and father. I share 100 percent of my DNA with no one. My wife is the complete opposite. She has eight siblings who share 100 percent of her DNA. Bev’s DNA results would be my wife’s DNA results.
Guess whose name showed up in Bev’s results, my wife asked.
Yes. She said she is your third to sixth cousin.
I want a divorce.
Those four words are my wife’s shorthand for “I don’t like what I just heard.”
We’ve gotten accustomed to people saying we look alike. You look like family, they said.
We are. We’ve been married for more than thirty years. When you’ve been together for a long time you start looking alike.
But Seriously. We are family. We are fourth cousins. We share a common ancestor who was alive in the 1900s. Geneticists said fourth cousins make perfect spouses.
Since then, I have heard from James “Da” West. We are cousins. The results confirm another cousin in England. Her grandmother and my grandmother are siblings. There are many other names with Montserrat ancestors. I hope to meet them one day.
One disadvantage of our slave and colonial heritage is that we have few records. Unlike many African Americans, Caribbean people are genealogically poor. We were not raised to treasure our ancestors. We have few records of those who came before us. Most of us don’t know our forebears beyond our great-grandparents. While the British like to boast of their 1,000 years of recorded history, they always treated our history and us as if we didn’t count. Our history matters. We have to treat it as if it does.
There are too many unanswered questions about who we are and where we’ve come from.
The March 17 celebrations is an opportunity, not just for revelry but to recommit ourselves to understand our past, how we got here as a prerequisite to charting our course forward.
I believe it is time for a grand experiment. It is time we filled out the Montserrat family tree. As many Montserratians who can afford it should take the DNA test. Civic groups should raise money for their members to take the test.
Some of the results will be surprising. There will be uncovered secrets. Your brother might not be your brother because you got the wrong father. That longtime friend is your third cousin because you shared a common great grandparent. You get the picture.
DNA results will unravel long buried lies. But more importantly, those results will unearth familial bonds. Knowing how closely we are related, even if we don’t know all the names of our common ancestors in the family tree, can be empowering.
I don’t believe it will solve all the problems that colonialism and racism have created. But knowing can begin to repair some of the psychological damage. Knowing will help our children even if it’s too late for some of us. Knowing is worth knowing.
Take the test.