Saturday, November 16, 2019

She grew up thinking she was white. Then she took a DNA test.

Christine Jacobsen’s discovery, through a home DNA test, that she had a black father led her to grapple with complicated questions about racial identity. “In my heart, I feel a connection.”

Ms. Jacobsen took her first consumer DNA test in 2016. When the test revealed 22% African ancestry, it appeared to confirm a story she was told, once, when she was 16 years old.

She grew up in Queens, N.Y., the only child of parents born in Denmark who immigrated to the U.S. in 1949. Her mother, Jytte Jacobsen, was a beautician whose alcoholism eventually prevented her from working. Jack Jacobsen, her father, was a sound engineer, who worked on the Oscar-winning movie “Apocalypse Now,” among others. Her parents had other relationships, she said.

The couple went out frequently to jazz clubs and nightclubs, making a point to meet the performers after the show. The party often continued back at the Jacobsen home.

One afternoon in May 1968, when she was 16, Ms. Jacobsen returned home from school and got into an argument with a man she knew was her mother’s lover. In the heat of the moment, she recalled, the man blurted out a secret her mother had confided in him: Ms. Jacobsen’s biological father wasn’t the man raising her. Her actual father was black.

Ms. Jacobsen’s mother, upset, started pacing around the room, but said it was possible. She pulled out a picture tucked inside a book. It was a publicity photo of a man, a dancer. The man was from the Bahamas, her mother said. His name was Paul. Ms. Jacobsen remembers thinking he had a beautiful smile, and a face that felt familiar in a way she found difficult to express.

“I think this might be your father,” her mother said.

The incident shocked Ms. Jacobsen. Later that evening, after her father got back from work, she recounted what happened. Her father dismissed the idea out of hand, telling Ms. Jacobsen it couldn’t possibly be true, and that she looked just like his own mother.

The next morning, Ms. Jacobsen went hunting for the photo but it was gone. She never discussed the subject with either of her parents again.

“I loved my father. He was the most important person in my life,” said Ms. Jacobsen. “I recognized that the only semi-stable person in the whole dynamic was my father, Jack, and I didn’t want to lose that.”

After the 2016 DNA test, Ms. Jacobsen came to believe her mother had been telling the truth. But she didn’t know how to verify the identity of her biological father. Her parents were both dead.

The DNA report noted she had relatives who shared common DNA segments, but none close enough to offer clues to her paternity. When she contacted three new distant cousins through the testing-company site, trying to figure out how they might be related, no one responded, she said.

She told her family and close friends about the test results. When she “found out her father wasn’t her father, her whole life changed,” said Angelo Marfisi, Ms. Jacobsen’s husband of 34 years.

Ancestry and race
Based on huge advances in genetic research, many scientists today believe there is hardly any connection between genes and race.

In 2003, scientists from the Human Genome Project announced they had essentially completed mapping of the human genome. The resulting genetic blueprint indicated that humans are 99.9% identical. The remainder, scientists said, likely contains clues explaining differences such as skin color or increased risk of certain diseases.

Some of those are connected to ancestry—where your predecessors came from thousands of years ago. Race, on the other hand, researchers say today, is a complex combination of factors from physical appearance to family stories and how people are treated as they move through the world. In other words, for many people, it is in large part subjective, not measurable.

After consumer DNA tests took off, customers have found themselves armed with increasingly specific details about their historical relatives. People don’t just have European ancestry; it can be broken down into a British or German component. Or they may be told their ancestry traces to Congo, not only Africa.

The information is based on migration patterns that happened thousands of years ago, through regions and among populations whose names, members, and borders have changed, says Wendy D. Roth, associate professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, who studies the effect of DNA tests on racial and ethnic identity. “But the tests present it as if it determines who you are today,” she said.

As Ms. Jacobsen found out, these kinds of results, when they reveal an ancestry that seems at odds with racial identity, can unsettle a life that had been stable for decades.

In May 2018, she decided to take another DNA test. She wanted to learn whether her African ancestry raised her risk of potential health issues.

To her surprise, she matched with someone in the company’s database who shared enough DNA segments in common with her to likely be a first cousin. Ms. Jacobsen was thrilled. A first cousin would share her grandparents and might know her father.

Ms. Jacobsen matches with a cousin who suggests her uncle Paul may be Ms. Jacobsen’s biological father.

She sent a note through the testing-company’s website asking to try to figure out how they were related. She says a woman wrote back, asking “What are the names of your parents?”

“I am not sure of my bio dad’s name,” Ms. Jacobsen wrote, “but I think he was from the Bahamas.”

The woman responded that her family was from the Bahamas.

“I’m from New York,” Ms. Jacobsen continued. “My mother told me she had an affair with a dancer who was from the Bahamas.”

“My mom’s brother was a dancer from the Bahamas,” the woman responded, “so I’m 99% sure your dad was my uncle Paul.”

Uncle Paul was Paul Meeres. This man, Ms. Jacobsen concluded, must be her biological father. She considered it convincing information, even though it wasn’t absolute confirmation.

He had died in 1986. Armed only with the name, Ms. Jacobsen started piecing together the history of her biological father’s family.

Dancing at the Cotton Club
She reached out to a Bahamian genealogist, Phil Roberts, who had created an extensive Meeres family tree. He told her that her grandfather, Preston Paul Meeres, was from the Bahamas but left for work in the U.S., where he met his wife, Thelma. The couple started dancing together, appearing on stage as Meeres and Meeres.

In the press, “they were the Negro Astaires of the 1920s,” said La Vinia Delois Jennings, a professor of 20th-century American literature and culture at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. The couple danced at the Cotton Club.

Despite their fame, like black performers of that era, when Meeres and Meeres danced at a club, they had to go somewhere else to get their meals “because they didn’t have the freedom to rub elbows with the wealthy white patrons who came to the clubs,” said Prof. Jennings.

Ms. Jacobsen found a newspaper clipping stating that the couple had two children, Paul K. Meeres, who she believes is her biological father, and a daughter, Gloria.

The couple divorced in 1930 and Preston Paul Meeres went to Europe, where he danced—and was photographed—with Josephine Baker. He eventually returned to the Bahamas in 1939 and opened up a nightclub in Nassau that drew celebrities including Elizabeth Taylor.

His son, Paul, became a professional dancer too, appearing in clubs in Europe and the U.S., including the Cotton Club. He was a stuntman in “Bronco Billy,” a Clint Eastwood movie, and at the time of his death at age 61, worked as a dancer and musician in a Titusville, Fla., restaurant, according to his obituary.

Ms. Jacobsen spent hours every day researching the Meeres family and the Harlem Renaissance. She read books about African-American history, and took the train from her home in Goshen, N.Y., into New York City to pore over archival photos of her biological grandparents and father in their dancing costumes, kept in collections at libraries such as the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.

Ms. Jacobsen contacted anyone she could find online who might have known Mr. Meeres. She tracked down one of his old friends and, after finding records online for previous marriages, located a former wife.

They filled in the personal details she craved. Her father liked to eat a spicy dish of pigeon peas and rice and spoke five languages. He played the conga drums and knew how to tune a piano. He had a temper but was also charming and a ladies’ man.

One time, she was told, Mr. Meeres got pulled over by the police for driving erratically and to prove he wasn’t drunk, did a headstand on the roof of the car. The police fined him $35 for disorderly conduct.

Most of all, Ms. Jacobsen wanted to meet members of the Meeres family. When her parents died, she said she felt like an orphan. Now she found the obituary for Mr. Meeres that listed four children, who she believed were her half-siblings.

One was deceased, and two she couldn’t locate.

Another half-sibling, Paula, lived in Queens, N.Y., around a two-hour drive from her home.

She wanted to meet Paula, but was afraid to go. She didn’t know how she might react to her showing up.

In August 2018, Ms. Jacobsen was visiting a friend in Long Island. She learned her half-brother was buried in a cemetery there and decided to visit, bringing sunflowers that she placed on his grave. “I wanted to pay my respects,” she said, “and see if I felt some kind of connection.”

From the cemetery, on a whim, she drove to Paula’s home in Queens and knocked on her door.

There was no answer. Disappointed, Ms. Jacobsen started walking back to her car. Suddenly, she heard a voice coming from a small window in the basement, asking who was outside.

“My name is Christine,” Ms. Jacobsen said she answered. “I am looking for Paula.” She waited while the woman climbed the stairs. “I know this is going to sound really weird,” Ms. Jacobsen said, when the door opened. “But I did DNA testing and…”

After a few minutes of conversation, the two figured out they were likely sisters, talked about getting lunch and exchanged phone numbers. Ms. Jacobsen took a selfie of the two of them.

In a phone call the next day, Ms. Jacobsen described her research. She says Paula told her that she knew Paul Meeres was her father, but he didn’t raise her.

Paula shared some medical information, Ms. Jacobsen recalls, and then said something that took her by surprise.

“She told me I had a good life and a husband and son, and shouldn’t look for more family because it was going to make me sad,” said Ms. Jacobsen.

In her journal, Ms. Jacobsen recognized her pursuit inevitably affected other people’s lives. “My desire to know can clash with your desire to forget,” she wrote in one entry. “My neediness conflicting with another’s fear of connection. My fear of connection conflicting with another’s neediness.”

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