“Cracking the Code” by Jesmyn Ward Summary
When Hurricane Camille devastated the Mississippi Gulf coast in 1969, Jesmyn Ward’s middle-school-aged father moved with his family to Oakland, California. As an African American with skin “the color of milky tea,” he discovered that his ethnicity was often unclear to strangers, who frequently addressed him in Spanish. The truth was that he attended an all-Black high school in which he was one of the few light-skinned students, and his childhood in Mississippi had been that of a “black boy in a black family” in the last days of legal segregation in the Deep South.
“Being black, in the sixties, was complicated,” and the same was true for Jesmyn Ward when she was growing up in the 1980s in a town just a few miles from where her father was born, fifty miles from New Orleans. Once when Jesmyn was a teenager, she was standing with her father in a supermarket checkout line behind a white woman when he began playfully nudging Jesmyn so that she jostled the woman. Jesmyn was mortified until the woman turned around, revealing herself as Jesmyn’s great-aunt Eunice. Surprised, Jesmyn said that she had thought Eunice was white, which made her father and great-aunt laugh.
Because of the cultural legacy of the so-called “one-drop rule,” even a pale-skinned, blond woman like Eunice is considered Black in the Deep South, which meant exclusion from public spaces, being deprived an opportunity for a full education, and going to work at an early age: first in her father’s fields and then cleaning houses for rich white people. Eunice also grew up in a local culture that tried to exclude African and Native American heritage from the Creole identity, limiting its definition to encompass only “true” Spanish and French blood. Such attempts seek to “erase” Black people from the local history and deny the fact of relationships between African-descended women and European-descended men in a time of strict antimiscegenation laws that prohibited interracial marriages.
As a result, it is “impossible for most Black Americans to construct full family trees,” as, for example, the census records available to Ward’s family to trace their genealogy back to France don’t include their non-European ancestors. Ward had always imagined that her genetic composition reflected the region’s typical “tangle of African slaves, free men of color, French and Spanish immigrants, British colonists and Native Americans,” but she knew neither in what proportion these ancestries were mixed nor what that proportion might tell her about herself. Ward eventually hears from some colleagues about the home DNA testing service 23andMe, and when she finds out how inexpensive it is, she orders tests for herself and her parents.
The test results confirm her father’s intuition that he is of mostly Native American ancestry, which he proudly celebrates by registering with the local Choctaw tribe, as well as African and European. Jesmyn’s mother, whose family has long told stories about their white great-grandparents, is proven to be of mostly European extraction, with African and some Native American heritage as well. For her parents, this information is “concrete proof of the ancestry they’d been denied,” which “taught them to read the language of their family histories.” But for Jesmyn, the results are more surprising and disconcerting, as she’d expected them to validate the Black identity she’d grown up with and that recognizes African origins and a Black spiritual legacy.
Ward learns that her ancestry is actually forty percent European, thirty-two percent African, and a quarter Native American, which she feels explains her close cultural affinities for both Native American traditions and European and British languages, literature, and pop culture. For days after receiving her results, Ward becomes obsessed with the “bushes and tangles and curls” of her hair, which she once styled into a ten-inch Afro and which she has always...
(The entire section is 1,133 words.)