While traveling recently for a business trip, I experienced turbulence unlike ever before while reading about personal genomic testing. It seems only fitting that it was, consequently, the bumpiest ride of my life as I sat there and considered the implications of how this study and science relates to Henry Louis Gates's series "The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross" on PBS. It would have been okay if the turbulence were attributed to the plane ride solely, but the chaotic property changes were occurring in more than just the air. It was also within my soul. It felt as if I'd been catapulted into a movie scene with us dipping and diving through the air as I was flying back to my hometown, on the verge of an impending tornado. The symbolism of this ride was surreal. I was flying back to Chicago, my home town struggling with distress and degradation. I hadn't even thought of it at the time. I was too busy trying not to throw up in my middle seat, trapped and unable to move betwixt two unknown travelers.
I'd taken along some reading companions, and before our daring descent, had been enjoying my quiet reading time. I became completely engrossed with an article on personal genomic testing. In it, I learned that in June the Supreme Court decided to bar companies from patenting genes, ruling human genes exist naturally and cannot be patented; which is to say, you can't "own" a human gene and sell products/services related to that gene. Well hallelujah for this, I thought. However, this is a striking decision in light of our US history in which Americans not only believed they could own genes, but, as we all know, they actually did own people, families, services, and all persons of African ancestry, thus the entire form of slavery in a nutshell. But it wasn't the quest to attain genes or approve genomic testing that fascinated me, although the cultural and historical relevancy can't help but slap you in the face. No, it wasn't that at all. What fascinated me was the reasoning behind personal genomic testing.
America's favorite Doctors Oz and Roizen explained this complicated science with complete simplicity which made the relevance of these findings undeniable, which is why, I wanted to just sit on that plane and weep. The ramifications of the information astounding for me. They said, "Science has evolved to the point where companies can now test a person's whole genome--his or her DNA gene inheritance--for certain traits, ancestry, how the person may react to specific drugs and inherited disease risk (such as Parkinson's or breast cancer, for instance. The results are then marketed and sold to consumers in order to help tailor prevention tactics and treatments that might reduce the risk of disease." Amazing, I thought. But here's what hit me hard:
"Our genes are like a code that tells our bodies to develop and function according to a certain set of instructions," they explained. And, "We inherit much of this code from our parents."
This unleashed a flood of emotion within me.
Pharmaceutical companies then, would market and sell to consumers, but then, people can also use the information gleaned from the genomic tests to prevent certain diseases. This is exactly what Angelina Jolie did. The mega-million dollar actress underwent a double mastectomy to prevent breast cancer after testing positive for one of the mutations linked to cancer. She had a family history of cancer and was able to benefit from having her genes tested. While Jolie inspired women with her brave decision, the entire article left me feeling bereft and bewildered. I sat there thinking, this is exactly why people don't understand the holes in our souls from slavery.
Jolie, with money, fame, and fortune, could afford, and therefore benefit, from personal genomic testing and I'm happy for her. It's my brothers and sisters scattered all over America and the planet for which I grieved. First of all, even if the Supreme Court hadn't banned this decision, we couldn't afford to have the test or surgery, or purchase the genes because most of us are too busy buying jeans and gym shoes, and hair and nails, and cars and clothes that carry no long-term meaning or value for health and longevity.
But you know what? It's not even the economic implications that gave me more emotional turbulence than flying into Chicago through a looming tornado. My emotions escalated higher than the clouds while reading that article, juxtaposed by the bumps and dips on that plane because we are so clueless of the power that lies right within us. That's why for me it was completely fitting because these are the "many rivers" we still have to cross, as Henry Louis Gates, Jr. teaches us. Yes, these still waters run deep.
For Jolie, and others like her, they can go in, pay for tests, have procedures, and live long and prosper. And what is she called? She's called a hero. The headlines read, "Jolie inspired many!" For us, we have no clue what runs in our family, because most African Americans don't even know who their fathers and grandfathers are. I am sad to say, I am like them. I have no idea of any details of my paternal grandfather, which means, my doctor visits, and for others just like me, are entirely different from those who can go in and answer , "yes" or "no" or "maybe" to questions about family medical history. I simply do not know. That's my pain and my reality. That's my own river to cross.
But here's what I do know. Here's what I sat there celebrating on that plane in the midst of my sadness:
Creativity, resiliency, tenacity, determination, genius, power, and the will to persevere and succeed are all IN MY GENES, and in all of the genes of today's Black America.
This FACT--not opinion--stunned me.
It was this revelation at that very moment that made every radical leader who I'd ever heard speak about the history of Black folk jump up in my mind. "We've been bamboozled!" I heard Malcolm shout. "Black Power!" screamed Stokely Carmichael in my soul. "Once you learn to read, you will forever be free," spoke Frederick Douglas from the abyss of my core. "Say it loud, I'm Black and I'm proud!" I wanted to get up and slide right through the middle aisle of that plane with all the pizazz of James Brown.
I heard them and I honored their presence with me right then and there.
Now mind you, this is all happening while I'm in a middle seat between a white man and woman. You never know who is sitting next to you and what they can be experiencing. They didn't even know that right there in their midst was a black butterfly coming out of yet another cocoon, my wings getting bigger and brighter with each breath.
Yet, my excitement soon fizzled like a 4th of July sparkler because I couldn't fully appreciate what this meant because the majority of my people aren't even watching Gates's series to appreciate and value their history. They are too busy watching the Preachers of LA and the likes of all modern day buffoonery on reality TV.
Once again I retreated back to my solitary sanctum humming "We shall overcome." In the quiet crevices of my creation, I had to remind myself that I can only be the change I wish to see in the world, because our truth is just as scripture explains, the people are perishing from lack of knowledge. And that's where my grief lies. My people don't know. My people are clueless.
This is why our young kings walk around with sagging pants, rapping nonsense, and killing one another because they don't know whose they are, or who they are. I mean, if it hadn't been for my own mother telling me to watch this series, that I didn't even know was on, I wouldn't be glued to my television every Tuesday like the majority of America on Wednesday for the Preachers and Thursday for Scandal. I could say something there as well, but do I need to? I don't think so. The state of Black America is obvious to everyone but ourselves.
Yet, much of this can be changed by simply watching Gates's program. I mean, it is a lot cheaper than personal genomic testing.
So why don't we do this. This Christmas, instead of buying designer clothes, handbags, and shoes, we should buy the family members that we do know this PBS series. I shudder to consider what would it feel like if all of my brothers and sisters experienced the emotions I did. What if they all transformed from hoodlums to the honor roll? What if my sisters went from ratchet to royalty, as history shows us we have the power to potential to be?
Even though I drive past drug dealers and gang bangers right here in my South side neighborhood in Chicago, I am still optimistic. I look at them and see them for the rich royal kings and queens they really are.
No, we can't own genes, and no, we don't know what runs in our family history because we don't know our family OR our history, but the truth is, we really don't need to. All we need is to be reminded of our history as Gates's extraordinary program teaches us. We are a people rich in every conceivable resource within our genetic make up. And although America has done everything they could to exclude true heroes from our memory, within us, our power still remains.
And I remain hopeful.
And I still believe, we shall overcome.
About me: I'm a wife and mom of 6 daughters who loves God, my family, and my ancestry. I believe I was purposed to inspire and motivate others to live healthier lives, which is why I affirm to live not in sickness, but "In FITNESS and In Health." Like the Gladys Knight song I heard played throughout my childhood, I also have "had my share of life's ups and downs." It's these twists, turns, and bumps and bruises that have made me so passionate about health and fitness, but also for being a role model for my people. I want children to know that you can be beautiful without being a booty shaker and you can enjoy entertainment just as much from reading as you can from a video or television. I know it is my life's calling to leave an indelible print on this planet, so each day I grant the Holy Spirit to use me as He sees fit. I thank God for being the lover of my soul and never cease to pray for my people, my purpose, and all humanity.
I am also a proud promoter of the Body by Vi 90-Day Challenge which I began October 2012 after gaining weight from a year's worth of inactivity after being out of work for a year. Since then, I've dropped four dress sizes and have helped many others achieve personal health and fitness goals, and I'd be happy to help you too, no matter where you are in the US, Canada, Jamaica, or the UK. The Challenge is there. Click here to visit my website.