Wayne Joseph, the principal of a big suburban high school in southern California, had an unequivocal sense of his black heritage, having written extensively about race in America.
But after seeing a TV story last April about a Florida company, DNA Print Genomics, which marketed an ancestry-by-DNA test, he began to wonder exactly how much of him was African, how much wasn't, and what else there might be in his genes.
"I sent away for their kit and received the kit, happened to swab both sides of my cheek and sent the swabs in," Joseph said.
A few weeks later, the results arrived at his comfortable Claremont, Calif., home.
"I just glanced at it, just a cursory glance initially — didn't really notice it much," Joseph said. "Then, I went back to it, because all of a sudden it hit me exactly what I had read. And it read, 57 percent Indo-European, 39 percent Native American, 4 percent East Asian and 0 percent African.
After a lifetime as a black man, Wayne Joseph discovered he probably isn't black at all.
"I kiddingly say, if I was 21 instead of 50, I'd be in therapy," Joseph said, "because when you define yourself one way and then at 50, there are results that say you're something else, it does rock your whole world.
It also rocked the world of Martin and Kenya, his kids from his first marriage — to a black woman.
"Honestly, I didn't know what to say," Kenya said. "I was in complete shock."
Joseph asked his mother, Betty, if he was adopted.
"He is not adopted," she said. "Mother doesn't forget when she has a baby. And I had three babies. And he was one of them."
On both sides, the Joseph family is of Creole stock, which does not necessarily mean African ancestry. Yet, before DNA tests, in the segregated parishes of Louisiana they'd always defined themselves as black, or "colored" in the old-fashioned parlance, despite their light complexions.
Betty Joseph said at age 76, DNA results will not alter the way she's identified herself all her life. She is a black woman. Or so she insists.
"It's hard to break old habits at my age," Betty Joseph said.
But Wayne's kids seem to be doing a bit more identity searching.
"That really makes myself and my sister sit back and say, 'OK, what are we comprised of?'" Martin said.
"I think this opens up a lot of doors," Kenya said, "and forces people to look at things differently about how we classify people with regard to race."
Room for Doubt?
The DNA test is very sophisticated, but it is not accurate to the tiniest fraction of ancestral genes — which means in this case, maybe there's room for doubt.
"There are some people who have said to me, 'Oh, Wayne, you know, [you've] got to get retested. I mean, it can't be right,'" Joseph said. "And so my response to them is, 'OK, let's say I get retested, I come back 9 percent African, 10 percent African, so I'm back in the club now?'"
Instead, Joseph is focusing on one of the old South's most enduring legacies. The so-called "one drop" rule, "says that anyone who has one black ancestor or any black blood at all is considered black in this country," Joseph said.
"The interesting thing about it is the one-drop rule is a rule that was imposed by slave owners who did not want the white purity in some way blemished by black blood," Joseph added. "And we still, black people and white people in this country, still hold to that rule."
Some with black ancestors choose to identify themselves as white, thereby trying to avoid the racial penalties usually paid by African-Americans. It's an old and familiar theme in Hollywood in films like the latest of the genre, The Human Stain — in which a college professor with African genes lives as white and Jewish.
Only in an absurd farce, like The Jerk, does a white man identify himself as black, though, in a way, that is precisely what Wayne Joseph proudly, if unwittingly, did for the last 50 years. The question is, what does he do now?
Joseph's birth certificate says he was born in New Orleans, and lists his race and color as "Negro." And his life has been that of a black American — including his hair style as a college kid, which was about as close as he could get to an Afro.
He's had his exposure to racism as well.
"I've been called a n----r before by white kids," Joseph said. "I've experienced being rousted by the police, with some friends. I've had the so-called — if there are typical, you know — black experiences. I've had those."
And without having the chance to make a choice, he has passed on his pride in being a black man to his family.
"We were taught growing up to embrace our black heritage," Kenya said, "and really be proud of what that means, and the struggles that black people went through."
Yet, Wayne Joseph did not espouse a black separatist ideology. His wife, Marcia, is white. They've been married for 17 years. The children have always lived with them and she helped raise them.
Martin is married to a woman whose ancestry is German and Hispanic, and they have a daughter, Stephanie, Wayne Joseph's only grandchild so far. Kenya, studying for an MBA, is married to a man of Mexican descent.
Wayne Joseph's circle of friends is a racial and ethnic hodgepodge many blacks and most whites do not have — though, they didn't quite get it when he told them about his DNA test after knowing him for so many years as an African-American.
In their close knit camaraderie, where one friend man named his son after Joseph, about the only difference they ever recognized is that Joseph doesn't put mustard on his hot dogs and he won't eat the icing on his cake. Is that racial?
"We should have known right then there was something wrong with him," a friend joked.
Who’s Black? Who’s White?
But all kidding aside, Joseph's DNA discovery raises a serious challenge to the way American culture seems to insist on a racial identity for everyone.
"We are very dichotomous in the United States," said Mark Shriver, the DNA test co-inventor. "You're either black or white. And understandably, less than 200 years ago, that meant life or death, basically — who was master, who was slave."
Shriver cautions the test does not always provide exact results always. Still, about 7,000 people have taken it, including Joseph.
Tony Frudacas, the other test co-creator and the director of DNA Print Genomics, said the company gets a lot of hate-mail these days from white supremacists who've heard about the test and don't like it.
"They might be afraid of what they might find in their own genomes," Frudacas said. "Five percent of European Americans exhibit some detectable level of African ancestry."
That means about one in 20 so-called white Americans have African genes. Frudacas' test told him he has about 6 percent Native American ancestry.
"My first thought when I saw that result was that I wasn't going to really be able to watch a cowboys and Indians movie the same way again, because I was affiliated with both groups," Frudacas said.
Shriver discovered his ancestry is 10 percent African, which means that under the old one drop rule, he's more of a black man than Wayne Joseph, who may not be a black man at all.
So how will Joseph fill in the race space on his census form? It is, he says, a question of choosing between the past and the future.
"The future is my grandchildren," Joseph said. "I want them to be able to say that my grandfather made a choice, one way or the other. If I'm given that census form, I'm going to mark 'Native American.' Because no one will doubt that I'm a native of this country or that my story is uniquely an American one."