Not who (or what) he thought he was

Published 7:02 pm Saturday, July 13, 2013

By Dennis Edwards

Suffolk’s Robert Raney has a determined daughter whose name is Reisha. She’s spent much of her life doggedly tracing the family’s roots back to William Turpin. His son, Edwin Durock Turpin purchased and married Mary a slave with whom he had at least 2 children.

Reisha used DNA testing on her parents as well as herself to trace the family link to Edwin and Mary. The project produced documentation that earned membership for her in the Daughters of the American Revolution.


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William was a patriot, who fought against the British in the Revolutionary War. His mother, Mary Jefferson, was the aunt of Thomas, the nation’s third president. So Edwin was Jefferson’s second cousin.

But perhaps the most fascinating part of the story has less to do with Reisha and more to do with her father. During the testing Robert found out he is actually 64-percent Eastern European and 36-percent African descent.

In essence, Robert is a black man who has discovered he’s actually white by percentage. In most places, 64 percent is a decided majority. Democrats and Republicans would kill for that kind of victory.

So how does a man who thought he was black react to the discovery that he’s actually white? Robert, a mathematician who lives in Suffolk, recently told the Washington Post “It blew my mind.”

The retiree strongly identifies with black culture and went on to tell the Post, “I was the darkest person in my family. At one time I thought I was adopted.”

But he wasn’t. He is who and what he is. Yet what surprised him most is what he isn’t. An astonished Robert told me, “There’s no American Indian blood in me.”

So what does that mean at the age of 74? What does a “black” man do when he finds out he’s actually more white than black?

I asked Robert whether the information changes the way he sees himself, the way he sees whites or blacks or anything about his life and relationships.

“No to everything,” he said. “My life is still the same with others having more reaction than I have. I guess I have been so accustomed to being identified as Negro/Black that I don’t think about anything else for myself.”

Perhaps that’s the only possible honest answer. It takes time to process the implications.

Yet his experience makes me wonder. What would happen if the shoe were on the other foot? What would a white man do if he suddenly found out he is black by percentage? Would he stay silent or start supporting Barack Obama? The discovery would certainly lend new meaning to the word Brotherhood.

Here’s another interesting question. How many blacks and whites fit into his category? Are we as black or as white as we think?

Many fair-skinned African-Americans passed for white in the ‘20s through the ‘50s. I often wonder how many people who thought both parents were white might be surprised by a different truth. There might be a lot of blacks who’d be shocked to learn their darker skin conceals a whiter lineage.

What a conundrum. Or is it a problem at all? Maybe there’s a reason Robert doesn’t feel any different than the day before he got the genetic news.

After all he’s the same man, doing the same things, whether majority black or white. I guess the bottom line is, he’s still just like you and me.

Dennis Edwards is an Emmy Award-winning television news reporter and anchor, He is a 1974 graduate of Suffolk High School. Email him at