One of the great things about teaching is that if you are good at what you do then you will always be in a process of improving your craft. For me this means continually learning about new and exciting things, which ultimately improves my teaching. In the process of teaching an identity unit which primarily focuses on race and gender, I decided to approach the science teacher at my school to see if we could do an interdisciplinary unit in which I would focus on race as a social construction and she would focus on race as biology. The unit has grown and developed over the years and today it includes a close examination of the latest scientific research, which basically states that there is no such thing as race from a biological point of view. Humans are, according to what we now know, the most similar of any species, and are most likely descendant from one woman who lived approximately 180,000 years ago in eastern Africa.
In teaching this unit I have learned more about evolution, DNA, and the origins of the human species then I ever thought possible. With the help of some good sources and some interesting and informative conversations with Dr. Joseph Graves, one of the foremost scholars in evolutionary biology s in the country, I became much more knowledgeable about a subject that in truth I knew very little about. However, what I think most changed the way that I look at race and humanity came from the simple DNA test I took along with my colleague. One of our students asked if the students could take a DNA test to determine their origins. In the interest of cost and any parental objections we decided that we would test our own mitochondrial DNA through the National Geographic Genographic project and share this information with the students. Mitochondrial DNA or mtDNA is inherited solely from our mothers and unlike most DNA it remains unchanged as it passes from one generation to the next. According to the National Geographic Genographic site, “…some parts of the DNA chain remain largely intact through the generations, altered only occasionally by mutations, which become ‘genetic markers.’ These markers allow geneticists to trace our common evolutionary time line back many generations.”
So the story began for me, according to the results, some 67,000 years ago with a woman who lived in east Africa. I belong to the haplo group L3. A haplo group is just a group of individuals who share common genetic markers found, in my case, in my mtDNA. “These markers link the members of a haplogroup back to the marker’s first appearance in the group’s common ancestor.” It was an amazing moment to learn with some sense of certainty that at least one of my ancestors (my mother’s, mother’s, mother’s, mother’s …) was from Africa, but it was even more startling to learn that “the L3 branch is the major maternal branch from which all mitochondrial DNA lineages outside of Africa arose.” In other words, I am descendant from the woman whose descendants would go on to populate the entire world. However, some of her descendants stayed within Africa and one of her daughters, generations later, would reside somewhere in west Africa and be taken by force along with thousands of other Africans to the Americas. Some generations later my great-great grandmother, Mary Samuels, living in Georgia, would have a daughter, Sallie, who her great-grandchildren would affectionately call Mama Cheney. Sallie would leave Athens, Georgia and make her way north with her husband Melvin and settle on the south side of Chicago in 1912. Their daughter Hazel would have four sons that survived infancy and two daughters, one of them my mother.
This knowledge has shaped me and changed me in profound ways. There are those times when I am on the subway or walking along the streets of Chicago looking at the diversity before me, and due to this test I am reminded that all of us are related. Linked by blood and an impossible transcontinental journey we indeed are all brothers and sisters and the proof is right here within each and every one of us.
What does this mean for me as a teacher when I stand before my class to share this information? It means that race is a social construction that was made to divide us one from the other and in the case of the Americas, to justify slavery. We are indeed one species with a common ancestor who gazed up at the same stars and moon that we do. This in my mind is just a beginning to help bridge the deep divisions that exist between us and perhaps bring a deeper understanding of our common humanity.
To learn more about the National Geographic Genographic project check out this talk by Dr. Spencer Wells