By Dr. Carlton Long
As the coming days unfold, you and I will hopefully be presented with very many opportunities to unpack, together, the meaning of the term “Mannish Water”. It is, for me, and for many of my dear friends and colleagues, a loan phrase from the beautiful island of Jamaica. If you are familiar with the island, and if you really know, “for real, for real”, its signature foods, you already know that “Mannish Water” is a famous Jamaican soup. Much more can be said about this amazing soup, but let’s just let the idea of “Mannish Water” simmer on the stove for a bit, for we can build on its meanings, origins and other associations at a later date, when perhaps you return to this column in coming months.
For this inaugural column, I would like to arrive instead with a couple of other gifts in tow. I do this for a couple of reasons: First, I was rather raised to arrive at a guest’s home bearing presents/presence of gratitude. Also, given — culturally — that the end of 2021is nearly upon us, it is clear that gift-giving will soon be on the minds of a great many of us. Of course, the gifts need not be material or tangible. Those which I offer you fall mostly in the intangible category, although there exist clearly physical and material aspects to them both. May I offer now these two gifts which I have found to be priceless in my life’s journey to date?
Gift number one is a set of quotation marks. They are very special quotation marks, for they only need to fit around one word in the entire English language. That word is: race. When the word “race” is used to designate groups of human beings, it is increasingly (in some academic circles) surrounded, wisely, by quotation marks. The point is to demonstrate that “race” is a fluid term which means different things to different people in different places and times. It is not, in a biological sense, a truly scientific term to use for human beings. I first discovered this insight when I was conducting comparative public policy research in England. It was a wonderful gift to stumble upon Charles Husband’s authoritative book series (“Race” in Britain). Of course, just because there are not, scientifically speaking, discreet human “races”, it does not mean that there does not exist– realistically– a social, political and cultural phenomenon of “race”. It is difficult to be a Black American, or any kind of honest American, and not know, or acknowledge, that “race” exists in the social, political and cultural sense. People act upon their commonsense understanding of “race” (e.g., “He’s black”; “They are white”, etc.) all the time. And they, indeed we, give real meaning to “race” — socially, politically and culturally — every day. That it what makes it so tricky. “Race” is both unreal and real at the same time. (For those of you who love theoretical physics, it is basically “Schrodinger’s Cat”.)
This brings me, finally, to gift number two. No, it’s not a cat. But this second gift can equip you with valuable information about far more than nine lives that have preceded you. The second gift I offer you this season is this word: haplogroups. If you have done DNA ancestral testing, and have looked deeply into your results, you may already be familiar with this amazing and pregnant word. By the way, please allow me to be fully transparent. I have absolutely no financial or other stakes in African Ancestry, 23andme, Ancestry.com or any of the other testing companies out there. And yet I encourage you gift yourself with the knowledge of your genetic past. It is liberating, almost overwhelming, to discover your genetic past. Your haplogroup designation is like finding millions of needles in a haystack.
For those of us who were stolen from Africa and cast throughout the Diaspora — Brazil to the Caribbean; the Caribbean to the U.S. and beyond — the 21st century’s gift of haplogroup science is truly exceptional. For us, this gift of genetic uncovering, or rediscovery, can prove to be a particularly soothing, healing and enlightening reward. Moving us more scientifically and precisely along a finer understanding, far beyond what we have been told to understand as scientific “race”, haplogroup science rocks our worlds! It takes a little bit of your spit and uses that to map out, or decode, your world — your universe — of ancestors. Back across the Atlantic, along the west coast of Africa, across the Sahel Belt and the Maghreb, or not, and/or wherever else your ancestors once traveled or settled — these things can become largely known to you, to us, today. You may wish to consider gifting this knowledge to yourself and to your loved ones.
Now is a new day and high time for abandoning the erroneous notions of “race” that were passed down to us through often ill-intentioned pseudo-science. We can do this. And, in the process, we need not throw out the baby with the bathwater. We can throw out the bathwater of scientific “race” and still hold on to the precious baby of ethnic identity and socially constructed “race”. This new kind of scientific scrutiny, one which is careful and rigorous, will undoubtedly get us all much closer to making real the challenge of ancient wisdom. Ancient African wisdom. And that is the edict: “Know thyself”.
Welcome to the Mannish Water world! My constant hope is that this column will be good for your heart and soul.
About Dr. Carlton Long
Heart & Soul columnist Dr. Carlton Long, is a former U.S. Rhodes Scholar and is currently co-editing with Dr. Olufemi Vaughan, of Amherst College a forthcoming anthology provisionally titled (Mannish Water: Social, Political and Cultural Essays by Black Scholarly Men in America), Lexington Books. A native of Gary, Indiana, the former college professor has appeared in national and print media, including National Public Radio (NPR), The Washington Post, The New York Times, Billboard, and New York Law Journal. His television appearances have included CNN, PBS and multiple other national, cable and local networks.