NICODA.ORG | International Center of Diverse Artists

NICODA.ORG | International Center of Diverse Artists

What Is Identity?

Most people know a little about their heritage, where their parents and grandparents came from. Some of us are luckier and have some clues that can take us further back. What if we found out something different? What if our deeper ancestry revealed a hidden past we had no idea existed? How would you react to learning that your understanding of your origins was much more interesting?

As more and more people are participating in the Genographic Project, some will certainly find out that their notions of identity and origin do not match the stories they have been told. Granted most people will find that their test results confirm long held notions and well established family traditions. The greatest gift from the project so far has been to show us how we all are connected, that ultimately all of us are cousins. Nationalistic concepts of identity and belonging don't really matter at a genetic level. We are all related, and our exteriors simply show adaptation to the local environment. Deep ancestry cannot tell you where your great-Grandparents came from, but it can tell you about the journeys and migration of all your ancestors from the moment they left Africa. The big question is what do we do with this information?

Everyone likes to feel they belong, that they are part of a group and share common values, goals, dreams for the future, etc. We form groups at many levels and for many reasons. We also choose to self identify with some groups over others for various reasons. As I wrote in my earlier piece a big part of my identity growing up related to my immigrant ancestors. I think many Americans can relate to that, since we pride ourselves on being a nation of immigrants. Our culture values remembering your roots, no matter how rudimentary an understanding you may have. I was sure I knew my ancestral past, and for the most part I did/do. My Mother's roots are solid European. My Father's are rather mixed, reflecting the history of immigration and colonization of early America. My interests and desire to know more led to my participation in the Genographic Project, and as we know my results were surprising.

America's past is long and complex. The effects of this past are very much still with us today. Thankfully we have so much more that unites us today, especially through culture and the arts. All of our ancestors had to make important choices. They all made the choice (usually) to migrate to the Americas, then within them. Most simply wanted a better life for themselves and their children. What kind of choices did my ancestors have to make? How did they react and adapt to changing culture as America grew and developed? If you look at my family today, we all look white. If you go back in our history though, “page through the family album,” you'll see my great-great-great-Grandmother was very much of mixed ethnicity. If we follow my direct male line back, through the centuries and a name change, we end up with Thomas Going, born around 1617. I have no idea what he looked like, but the legacy he bequeathed me is an African one.
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What some of my ancestors looked like.
I can never know all the choices my ancestors faced, but based on what I know I can piece together their migrations, and try to find some meaning in these actions. The choices they made reflected the changing attitudes in colonial society as well as economic and population growth pressures. The Goins' and their relations all arrived on the east coast, at varying times, throughout most of the 17th century. As lives were established and families grew, people migrated throughout the colonies. Most of my ancestors ended up in the South, which was the center of farming and agricultural enterprise at the time. Colonial society was built around class and economic influence, with freemen and the wealthy being in the middle and top, and indentured servants (composed of poor Europeans, Native Americans, and some early African slaves) at the bottom. Due to low population and a desire for quick growth, many people in the early colonies married people of other races and ethnicities from similar economic backgrounds. By the early to mid 18th century, populations were growing quickly, but society was becoming settled and more stratified. Most of my ancestors at the time seemed to have been farmers and hunters, the most common occupations in the colonies. After the Revolution, people started moving about, pressing up against the boundaries of the colonies and wanting more space. Expansion west of the Appalachians became a high priority.

My ancestors responded to the calls to move west, a few going with the earliest explorers and settling into the new territories on the borders between Tennessee and Virginia. They stayed in the mountains, developing a more distinct culture and way of life. The mountains gave them the freedom to grow and work their farms, hopefully making something that would last for generations. The mountains also gave them the freedom to come together, to blend cultures and traditions between white settlers, native american tribes, and african-americans looking for a safer and freer place to pursue their dreams in this new land. Music and dance flourished, families intermarried, stories were told and told again, growing into local legends. A unique way of life developed, a way of life that was insular for sure, but a way that kept people safe and stressed community and togetherness.

This is a wonderful heritage to be sure, but exploring it has meant learning more about America and our early history. I have learned that our history is not so cut and dry, like we're taught in history class. Identity can blur when we learn we're all more closely related. The history of colonization in the Americas is one of blending cultures and traditions, replacing languages and histories with new ones, creating new identities out of struggle and conquest, but also shared sacrifices and dreams of better and brighter futures. One single DNA test result, one glimpse into the greater, grand human migration out of Africa, has opened up a whole new world to me. It is a world full of human migrations and coming to understand the huge degree of blending and changing that has created new cultural identities throughout the centuries. But the story doesn't end here.
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NICODA's project, How We Are Connected, seeks to tell the grand tale of human migration, and also profile similar discoveries from the artists. NICODA will tell these stories over the next few years, focusing on specific regions of the world, starting with a very exciting place, the Caribbean. In the next few months, selected artists will be taking part in the Genographic Project, having their DNA tested and learning where they fit in the story of humanity. Since my own story proved so interesting, I can only imagine what these artists will discover. History truly is the story of migrations, of people and cultures coming together. DNA is now telling us the deeper story, of how we came to be. Today it feels like what we notice most about each other are differences, but those differences are only skin deep and always in the eye of the beholder. I have learned that people really seek unity, seek common cause and interests. That seeking, that coming together, sharing and blending cultures, has created much beauty in the world. Today NICODA is seeking to share that beauty, to express and share the stories from which they stem in new and exciting ways. What we are seeking here is bringing people together through performing arts. I can hardly wait to see what's coming.
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