Growing up in Appalachia in the 1950s, Brent Kennedy always believed that he was of English and Scotch-Irish descent, just like everyone he knew in his hometown of Wise, Va. But when he saw the film Lawrence of Arabia in 1962, he noticed that his family looked more like the Arabs in the movie than the British. Kennedy had inherited his father's light blue eyes, but he had his mother's black hair and in the summer would get a deep tan. He had heard a story about his great-grandfather being barred from voting in the early 1900s because his skin was too dark. "I thought, What's wrong with us? Why do we look funny?" When he asked his mother, "I was told to shut up. I really didn't know who I was," he says.
Last December he finally got some answers. After taking a $199 DNA test offered by DNAPrint Genomics in Sarasota, Fla., Kennedy was told he was 45% Northern and Western European, 25% Middle Eastern, 25% Turkish-Greek and 5% South Asian. "I felt freed," he says. "Suddenly there was an explanation for a lot of the shame and embarrassment in the family." As an adult, Kennedy had learned that his mother's family belonged to a mixed-race group called Melungeons who lived in the Appalachians. While their exact ethnic origins are unclear, Melungeons were united by their dark complexion and the discrimination they faced from lighter-skinned neighbors. Kennedy became so interested in his heritage that he wrote a 1994 book called The Melungeons. But it wasn't until he took the DNA test, he says, that he felt he had unlocked the mystery of his ancestry.
More than 100,000 Americans, including such celebrities as Oprah and Spike Lee, have sought to do the same by taking genealogical DNA tests now offered by commercial labs. Starting at $95 and using a sample of cells swabbed from inside the cheek, the tests can answer questions ranging from whether you have Native American or African ancestry to whether you are related to someone with the same last name. One of the newest services, launched by the National Geographic Society in April, provides a glimpse of your ancestors' migratory history and helps fund a five-year research project aimed at mapping the migratory path of modern humans.
While the test results can pack an emotional wallop that brings many to tears--especially adoptees, descendants of slaves and others who previously had little knowledge of their roots--skeptics have raised questions about their accuracy. "When genetics becomes a direct-to-consumer product, it gets oversimplified and oversold," says Hank Greely, an ethicist and lawyer at Stanford Law School who specializes in genetics and biotechnology. Although it is relatively easy to determine African or Asian ancestry, it's more difficult to pinpoint roots in, say, the Ivory Coast or Sri Lanka. Accuracy will improve as genealogical databases acquire more samples, but many in this nation of immigrants and ethnic hybrids are happy to have even approximate answers to that universal question, Who am I?