Real roots

One of my earliest encounters with race was when a distant cousin of my mother's came to stay. He took up residence at the top of the house, and my appointed task, at the age of 6, was to call him down to dinner.

Having seen him on arrival and noted the thick black hair, slab cheeks, and olive skin, this became a formidable duty. My small head had seen enough cowboy-and-Indian movies to know which side he was on. And I fully expected rhythmic stomping and telltale feathers as I crept up to the third floor to deliver the dinner invitation.

My mother's cousin has a streak of Mohawk in his genes.

Race and origin are finely sliced topics in this land of immigrants, where almost everyone comes from somewhere else - most voluntarily, but not all.

This fall, 300 African-American school children in the Boston area will be taking a swab of cotton home to collect DNA samples from family members for a project run by a local molecular biologist.

The goal is to find common DNA sequences in the genetic makeup of African-Americans and their present-day African counterparts as a way to identify which regions of that continent their ancestors may have come from.

Scientifically, 99.9 percent of human DNA is identical, human-genome researchers tell us.

We're all one.

But our heritage is part of our uniqueness. And for those who were denied their history, tracing family roots is part of refining that sense of identity - whether by DNA or old family journals.

In the end, though, it was the qualities that my mother's cousin brought into our family experience that formed the deepest, most enduring roots.

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