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Reclaimed heritage

Gregg Reese | 2/27/2008, 5 p.m.

When I was a kid, no one would believe anything positive that you could say about black people. And that's a terrible burden on black people, because they don't have an accurate idea of their history, which has been either suppressed or distorted." -Basketball hall of famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on his African heritage.
Who am I?
The question is as basic and elemental as humanity itself. It is at the hub of many philosophical and theological movements and schools of thought.
Social scientists believe that an underlying cause of delinquency in teenagers is the struggle to form a positive self-image or self-comprehension. This is especially true for minority adolescents who must negotiate this most critical period of human development while wrestling with hormonal changes on top of finding one's "role" in life.
This concept takes on additional poignancy with America's black population because of the complete and abrupt "break" when abducted from Africa, followed by their extensive background of abuse since arriving in "The New World," and finally the sheepish emulation (also known as a 'colonial mentality') of the physical characteristics and behavior of European descendants who have dominated American society since the 16th century.
The rise of cultural awareness in the 1960s resulted in a rejection of these practices, and gained momentum with the broadcast of the television mini-series Roots, based on the novel by Alex Haley in 1977. This, in turn, nurtured an interest in genealogical research (the study and tracing of families) among American blacks inspired by Haley's decade-long research into his familial past. This impact was not relegated to black audiences, as an estimated 85 percent of American households were tuned in at some point, affecting attendance at movie theaters, restaurants, and sporting events, and arguably opening the door for the later success of biographical entertainment such as Gandhi and Schindler's List. Most importantly, it revived interest in genealogy and individual history among all segments of the country's populace.

Genetic sleuthing
Our tentative interpretation of the tree and the associated time scale fits with one view of the fossil record: that the transformation of archaic to anatomically modern forms of Homosapiens occurred first in Africa, about 100,000-140,000 years ago, and that all present-day humans are descendants of that African population. -from "Mitochondrial DNA and Human Evolution," By Rebecca L. Cann, Mark Stoneking & Allan C. Wilson; in the international weekly scientific journal Nature, 325 (1987); courtesy of the Department of Biochemistry, University of California.

Due to the circumstances of their transport to The New World and the living arrangements in which they found themselves, African Americans cannot readily trace their ancestry through the usual channels of census documentation and municipal records. Due to the sweeping advances in Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) research over the last two decades of the 20th century, scientists have been able to make distinctions between individuals of the same species by way of the DNA strands that make up the genes of cells that exist in all living organisms. The most well-publicized use of this technology has been in the area of forensic science, as evidence in criminal court cases, the most notable one being that of disgraced NFL running back O.J. Simpson, in which blood samples were used to tie him to the site where his wife and her friend, Ronald Goldman, were murdered. DNA technology has also made its way into popular culture by way of the tabloid talk show format that became popular at the tail end of the 20th century, especially with the "Who's My Baby's Daddy?" episodes of The Maury Povich Show.
Since DNA is passed down generationally, its uniqueness as a type of "genetic fingerprint" makes it possible to trace one's family tree in descending order from parent to offspring, by matching repetitive gene sequences (even within a family unit there will be some minute deviation, except in the case of identical twins who will have indistinguishable genetic profiles).
An offshoot of these developments has been the popularity of genealogical DNA testing. In simple terms, this means the determination of genetic relationships between individuals. While these innovations are relatively new, the basic concept has been around for eons, and may explain the long-held prohibition against incest or inter-family breeding (and the resultant unwanted genetic defects) in most cultures. Following this line of reasoning, two people may use genealogical DNA testing to find out whether they share common ancestry.
These tests are generally either Y-DNA (the paternal line), or Mitochondrial DNA (the maternal line) analysis. Since the Y-chromosome may only be found in males and are passed on from father to son, this test is not normally used in tracing African American ancestry, since European slave masters regularly impregnated female slaves (resulting in an estimated 30 percent of black males inheriting Y-chromosomes of European origin).
Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) on the other hand, has been successfully used to trace the lineage of American blacks back generations to the Dark Continent, and with a fair amount of accuracy, to specific regions within that land mass.
Proponents of the theory that Africa is the birthplace of mankind take all this a step further and maintain that all the world's peoples are the descendants of one specific female designated "Mitochondrial Eve," who dwelled in what is now the "Horn of Africa" in the eastern portion of that continent (See "Eve: The Mother of us all?" from Our Weekly Feb. 2, 2006). Popularly known as the "Out of Africa" hypothesis, it was first postulated by none other than the esteemed Charles Darwin in his 1871 opus The Descent of Man. This hypothesis, currently the most popular among geneticists (students of, or specialists in genetics), is supported by the majority of genetic evidence accumulated thus far.