Growing up, Joe Mozingo assumed his last name was Italian, or maybe French Basque. And then he met a distant relative named Sherrie Mazingo. Sherrie is black, and she had news: Their common ancestor was, too. How cool is that?

According to genealogists, some 90 per cent of Mozingos in the U.S. can be traced back to a single guy: Edward Mozingo, a onetime indentured servant from the Kingdom of Kongo who sued for his freedom in 1672. Joe, a journalist for the Los Angeles Times, decided to visit his distant relatives around the U.S. and see what they knew about their ancestor. The end result—which the Times printed in three parts this week—is a funny, sad story about race, family, and how weird America is.

Visiting the Mozingo clan in Decatur County, Kentucky, Joe encounters Bud Mozingo, who is white, except for being Bantu, and hates "queers," "niggers," and, uh, "Dutchmen." His cousin, Tanya, identifies as black, even though she had a white mother, who was Bantu. Confused yet? Tanya's grandmother Amy—Bud's first cousin—seems taken with the idea of being descended from an freed African servant:

I told Amy about Edward Mozingo and showed her the colonial court's description of him as a "Negro man." She was delighted and wanted a copy to needle Bud with. "I'm so happy for Tanya," she said, tearing up.

Joe also learns that he's related to Ku Klux Klan members—"Grandpa Joe" Mozingo was a Klansmen, apparently. A Bantu Klansman!

In North Carolina, Joe meets with a black branch of the Mozingo clan. Sort of. Wiley Mozingo, a former prison guard, identifies as black. But his father was light enough to pass as white, which he often did. And Wiley's younger brother Ricky, as light as their father, identifies "more as white than black when pressed on the issue." In case you need a reminder of the arbitrary nature of racial classification:

"My childhood was hell on earth," Ricky said. "I learned early the wrath people can feel just from the color of your skin . . . Wiley was just dark enough that white people hated him. I was light enough that dark people hated me."

Stories of odd genealogical discoveries are pretty common—go back far enough and everyone's got something unexpected in their family tree—but the Mozingo family is really special, not just because they're mostly hilarious. The whole story is worth reading.

[LAT: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3]