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In Searching For My Roots, I Found So Much More

I embarked on a journey with WNYC's Only Human to trace my African lineage and ended up dissecting the "I got Indian in my family" oral history that is so common in the American South.

Posted on April 19, 2017, at 5:13 p.m. ET

Hi! I'm Tracy, a black girl from the American South.

Tracy Clayton / BuzzFeed / Via

That's me on the right with my big brother, Travis.

Our grandparents and their grandparents were born in Kentucky, and my brother and I grew up in Louisville. Like many black people from the south, my family has been unable to trace our lineage beyond slavery, so we don't know where in Africa our ancestors from. Just that we came from somewhere out there.

All we had to go on was an oral family history that maintained that we were, in the words of my grandmother, Tootsie, "black, white, and (American) Indian." This is the case for a lot of black families; the idea that we have "Indian in our family" is a bit of a cultural meme in black America at this point, and I've always wanted to examine how true that actually is.

Tracy Clayton / BuzzFeed / Via

My mother and I.

I gave up trying to make a family tree as a kid, but when DNA genealogy tests became popular, I knew that I needed one.

Cash Money Records / Via

It's all the rage now; social media is teeming with people sharing the results of their tests, and there are tons of reality shows about celebrities using DNA technology to trace their roots. I'm not a celebrity, but don't I deserve a chance at finding out where I came from? Of course I do!

Once I moved to New York City, I noticed that every brown person seemed to know exactly what kind of brown they are—West Indian, Nigerian, Puerto Rican. The city is covered in the flags of everyone's homelands, and I decided that I wanted a flag, too.

So I decided to try out a couple of tests, see what they tell me, and compare my results. I only expected to find out which African country's flag I should buy, but I learned so much more about the history of race in American and what it means—and doesn't mean—to have "Indian in your family."

The DNA test was a roller coaster of an experience. Here are 7 things I learned on my journey.

1. There are lots of different kinds of tests out there.

Jazmine Hughes / Via Twitter: @jazzedloon

With the popularity of tests like these on the rise, new companies offering DNA genealogy test kits are popping up everyday.

Prices vary, too. Depending on which company you buy them from, DNA genealogy tests will run you about $100 a pop. But there are more detailed, involved ones that will cost a bit more. Some offer health analysis that tell you how your genes influence things like traits and whether or not you're likely to have wet earwax (never again be left without an answer to the question "so what's your genetic predisposition to wet earwax?" on a first date!). There are even DNA tests for dogs. Not making that one up.

2. Different companies use different DNA databases. / Via

This means that the results you get from will likely look different from the results you get from (which happen to be the two sites I used). One gave a more detailed profile, pinpointing the country in Africa that my ancestors are likely from, while the other gave a more general region.

3. Native American tribes have worked very hard to keep their genetic material out of these databases.

Vice / Via

And really, when you think about the history of inhumane treatment and medical testing that Native tribes have suffered since Columbus "discovered" America, it makes a lot of sense to be protective.

4. The things that we think of as markers of race, identity, and heritage, like hair texture and skin tone, don't dictate your actual genetic makeup.

Epic Records / Via

It makes sense when you think about it—someone who has long, silky hair isn't necessarily more European than African, and someone with light skin isn't necessarily less African than European. But when you live in a society that uses these markers to dictate nearly everything in a person's life, it's easy to forget that. I always assumed that because of all the fair-skinned people in my family, we were likely whiter than we were black. But..

5. I'm much blacker than I thought I was!

Warner Brothers / Via

I was pleasantly surprised to find out that not only am I mostly African (scientifically), but I'm very African, clocking in at a smooth 83%!

6. Who you are goes much, much deeper than genes and DNA.

FX / Via

There are so many different things that are thrown into the mixing pot that ultimately creates our identity. Blood, science, genetic markers—all that only accounts for so much. The way that we see ourselves and the way we identify is greatly impacted by our unique family histories, lived experiences, and historical interactions with the world around us. DNA testing is fun, but it shouldn't be taken as a hard and fast definition of who and what we are. We're more complicated than that.

7. And I accomplished my original goal: I learned which flag to buy.

Google / Via

Now that I know which African country my ancestors likely came from, I can finally get a flag to hang pridefully in the window of my Brooklyn apartment. Wanna know which flag it is? Listen to the episode below!

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.