Reclaimed heritage

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

Tracing a direct genetic line
Our roots are the foundation of our family tree. They help define who we are. However, for many of us, the injustices of slavery have robbed those trees of many of its most important branches, leaving major voids with respect to our African history. -from the African Ancestry website at http://www.africanancestry.com/

The recent revival of interest in genealogy has spread among Americans of all ethnic backgrounds and spawned a plethora of companies promoting their services to those seeking a scientific explanation about their family backgrounds, not a few of them focusing on a black clientele. One of the most well known is African Ancestry of Washington, D.C., who have helped over 10,000 customers reconnect with their past, including celebrities such as Grammy award-winning singer India.Arie, motion picture director Spike Lee, actors Blair Underwood and Isaiah Washington, television host and entrepreneur B. Smith, and civil rights activist and statesman Andrew Young.
African Ancestry was launched in 2003 by principles Gina M. Paige and Dr. Rick Kittles. Kittles, who holds a Ph.D. in Biological Sciences and has a solid background in molecular genetics and its impact on breast and prostate cancer and heart disease, provided the technical expertise. A Stanford grad with an MBA from Michigan, Paige brought extensive experience in marketing, product development, and placement for Fortune 500 companies including Sara Lee and Colgate-Palmolive.
The whole procedure is disarmingly simple. For a price currently at $349.00 (online, via paper order form, or by phone at 202-723-0900) one receives a test kit by mail. After swabbing the inside of the cheek, the sample is mailed back to the laboratory by way of a prepaid envelope. Within approximately six weeks the test results are received. African Ancestry boasts that its database is the most comprehensive resource of African lineages available.
As with any emerging technology, there are numerous bugs to be worked out, and unexpected consequences arising from opening the door to one's past. Genealogy can reveal biographical information about individual heritage that can establish who a person's likely ancestors were. Still, even with modern-day innovations, genetic research cannot identify with absolute certainty the specific inherited connections passed down by one's forbearers.
Many clients have reportedly become irate with the discovery of unanticipated revelations of their European extraction, an ugly reminder of the forced miscegenation that was a staple of the ante-bellum South. Even under the most ideal scenarios, experts stress that these findings are not conclusive. One disadvantage with autosomal gene testing (involving any one of the chromosomes outside of the sex chromosomes), is their present state of imperfection and comparatively large margin of error (as much as 15%, according to some estimates).
Some critics charge that the tests are oversimplified. One of the better publicized criticisms came from noted writer, Harvard literary professor, and PBS producer Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who employed two separate companies to do his DNA testing and obtained completely different results.

Toward a deeper self-perception
Am I then really all that which men tell of?
Or am I only what I myself know of myself?
-From "Who Am I?" A poem by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the World War II theologian martyred by the Nazis
Those seeking to embark on such an emotionally charged undertaking might do well to remember that for all the potential benefits of rediscovering their ancestral roots and recovering their forgotten past, the possibility exists for the recovery of painful secrets that may be highly damaging to the psyche of African Americans.
The ramifications of genetic research bring up all matter of possibilities not imaginable in the past. Needless to say this is a Godsend for heretofore childless couples with no other options besides adoption, but benefits are now available for those not stymied by the plague of infertility.
Of course, ethical issues are also raised as the development of cloning processes are continually being perfected, along with the concerns of those who chose to follow a strict interpretation of religious doctrine, bringing up the whole question of evolution, which is part of the foundation on which genetics is built.
In psychology and cognitive science, there exists a theory involving a person's understanding of and relationship with the surrounding world, called schemata. Schemata holds that a person's past experiences and self-concept are a primary factor or motivating force in determining how they relate or interact with the world. Memories, be they pleasant or unpleasant, are framed by the merits of one's self-conception. With this in mind, it is possible that the retrieval of one's lost or stolen legacy might give them a sense of self and raise their self-esteem.
Keeping in mind the limits inherent in DNA testing (just as there are limits in all scientific research) remember that most assessments trace a small amount of a person's ancestry, and will likely not identify all the geographical locations they have come from (this is especially true with all the interracial breeding that occurred with African Americans).
Even in light of all these restrictions, a fuller comprehension of an individual's background may go a long way in helping them in their pursuit of a successful life.