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Completing the black timeline through DNA testing

For black Americans, learning about our pre-slavery origins can add a rich dimension to our identities

July 5, 2015 2:00AM ET

Over the past 20 years, Americans have experienced a swelling of inquiries into their ancestral roots and national origins. With just a few strokes of the keyboard or brief consultations with ethnic-DNA experts, people all over the nation are discovering intriguing details about their progenitors. For many, the process merely clarifies and gives names to those who have been discussed in the family for generations. For others, it confirms the origin place of their people and allows them to explore the richness of their home nation or culture.

But for one population of Americans — African-Americans who either know with certainty or have good reason to believe that they are descended from African slaves brought to the shores of the United States — the possibility of learning about family histories through science can be jarring.

Many African-Americans living today have had no way of knowing their specific national and cultural origins. Any documentation that would have noted where in Africa slaves came from either never existed or was lost or destroyed at some point in history. Some are more fortunate. Alex Haley’s monumental novel “Roots,” published in 1976 (and adapted for television as a 1979 miniseries by the same name) told the story of how he was able to trace his black family lineage back to 1750 in Gambia in West Africa. Inspired by Haley’s success, scores of African-Americans began to dig through any and all available family, church and government documents to trace their identities. Many were surprisingly successful. More recently, Henry Louis Gates Jr., a professor of African-American studies at Harvard University, has become the face of this quest for identity. As the host of the PBS show “Finding Your Roots,” he has helped celebrities and ordinary people alike — including prominent African-Americans such as actor Samuel L. Jackson, singer John Legend and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice — confront their genealogical histories through a combination of genealogical and genetic research. But for most of us, the information we need to unearth our origins remained elusive.

Today, however, new DNA science can link nearly all African descendants — in fact, all of us — to their ancestral homelands. The test essentially analyzes a person’s DNA against a database of DNA collected from various ethnic groups from their respective lands, where DNA clusters have been extremely stable over the centuries. The testers then identify certain genes that link you to a population cluster and then provide a genetic map of your ancestral origins broken down into rough percentages. You might find, for example, that you are about 94 percent likely to be from Sierra Leone (which is what Katrina Bell-McDonald found out about her maternal line).

But even with the science available, many African-Americans are unable to afford the test — which usually costs several hundred dollars — and often uninterested in taking it. 

Gaining clarity into our pre-slavery origins could help supplant the idea that African-Americans are defined solely by slavery.

It’s often difficult for African-Americans to fully realize their ties to what can seem a mythical place. While African-Americans know that they are not inherently native to the Americas, they tend to find an emotional attachment to Africa — even to West Africa where most of our ancestors were captured — elusive, in many instances questioning the ethnic label “African-American.” For most, the significance of the African continent was washed away during slavery.

Since the era of legal bondage, black Americans have fought to attain a semblance of equality in this nation. But the damage caused by the trans-Atlantic slave trade remains. Indigenous languages, religions and customs of West Africa were lost. Different cultural groups from various parts of West Africa and beyond were forced into amalgamation when they reached the United States. African-Americans were made to learn the tongue, religion and customs of their white slaveholders, at the expense of their ancestors’ traditions.

As sociologists, we have seen firsthand the value of acquiring this knowledge. As part of a four-year mentorship project led by comedian Meshelle Foreman Shields that seeks to strengthen black teenage women educationally, socially and spiritually, we held weekly gatherings helping them appreciate who they are as African people in America. At the culmination of this discussion, we encouraged the girls to take a DNA test as an accompaniment to an ancestry-tracing assignment they conducted online. Mentors and mentees performed mitochondrial (maternal grandmother) DNA tests at the same time, and when the results came back, we opened our envelopes at the same time. The girls were thrilled to learn that their homeland had a name. Sierra Leone. Cameroon. Nigeria. Burkina Faso. Liberia. There were even girls who learned that their primary DNA was not African at all but rather Native-American and European. It was an exhilarating moment for all. The girls professed being transformed by the experience.

We envision a similarly meaningful relationship shift with identity across the African-American population should DNA testing become widespread. It might be that a person who finds his or her genetic connection to, say, the Yoruba of Nigeria would choose to identify with that culture in some way and adopt some of their customs or even language — a sense of agency that in itself can be powerful.

But gaining clarity into our pre-slavery origins has a broader significance: It could help supplant the idea that African-Americans are defined solely by slavery. If we discover our roots to different ethnic populations, customs and languages in Africa, the oppressive history of slavery might begin to loosen its grip on our identity, and we might begin to better understand its brief presence in the much deeper history of our rich lineages.

So today we call on philanthropists across the U.S. to fund the DNA testing of all African-Americans, which could help build a future in which all African-Americans feel legitimate and justified in the pronouncement of their African roots and can walk with assurance alongside their ethnic compatriots.

Katrina Bell McDonald is Associate Professor of Sociology at The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and on the faculty of its Center for Africana Studies. Her research and teaching are focused on the African-American family and the complex intersections of race, class, and gender. She is the author, most recently, of “Embracing Sisterhood:  Class, Identity, and Contemporary Black Women.” 

Jordan Bell-McDonald is a sociologist and attended Claremont McKenna College. He works and resides in Baltimore.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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