Color Lines

How DNA ancestry testing can turn our notions of race and ethnicity upside down.

  1. When I was a young boy, I found a photograph half-hidden in the back of my parents’ closet, leaned up behind my mother’s stacked boxes of high-heel shoes. A dandyish man in a dark suit and skinny tie stared out at me, bearing a striking resemblance to my mother. Who was he? His hair, parted neatly in the middle, peeked out under a broad-brimmed hat perched jauntily on his head. In time, I learned that the unknown man was my grandfather James Morgan Richardson. But not until I was 16, when I overheard a conversation between my parents in the middle of the night, did I learn that he was white.

    My parents kept my grandfather’s portrait hidden because in 1960s Mississippi, with all its racial paranoia, displaying the picture in our living room would have been risky, if not impossible. Severe social consequences awaited any black person claiming close kinship with a white person. So the picture stayed hidden, part of my mother’s past, and my own—something I knew about but didn’t yet feel free to explore.

    My mother knew that the portrait fascinated me, and when I got married, she gave it to me. I saw that gift as an invitation to learn more about the man within the borders of the frame. It has taken me 20 years, but I’ve finally begun to figure things out and better understand my own history as well.

    In 21st-century America, my family would be described as multiracial. But in the world I grew up in—the American South of the 1950s and 1960s, where the idea of race and identity de...