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.
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.
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.
Non-profit Organizations and Resources for Genealogical Research
-African American Cemeteries Online http://africanamericancemeteries.com/
-African American Genealogy. An Online Interactive Guide for Beginners
-The African American Registry http://www.aaregistry.com/
-The African American Roots Project Collaboration between the
University of Massachusetts at Lowel and the University of South Carolina
-The African American Genealogy Ring http://afamgenealogy.ourfamily.com/
-The African-Native Genealogy Homepage Contains data about Oklahoma’s Black Indians
-The Amistad Research Center Maintained by Tulane University and dedicated to preserving America’s ethnic history.
-California Genealogical Society and Library www.calgensoc.org/
-The Freedmen’s Bureau Online http://freedmensbureau.com/
-Genealogy of Jamaica
-Genealogical Research at the New York Public Library
-Library of Congress American Memory Historical Collections
– Mount Clemens (Michigan) Public Library’s Genealogy Collection
-The National Archives and Records Administration
-The Root Online Magazine Washington Post-Newsweek Interactive
-Southern California Genealogical Society Volunteer-managed society dedicated to foster interest in, and train researchers in proper genealogy techniques.
-The Tan community and the Natirah Heritage Council (NHC) A website promoting a new ethnic term, “Natirah,” as a replacement for the previous designation “Mulatto” http://members.aol.com./Natirah/H74MX.TXT.html
-Tangled Roots Yale University’s research project with data about the shared histories of Americans of Irish and African heritage
-The USGenWeb Project. A group of volunteers banded together to provide
free genealogy websites for genealogical research in every county and every state of the United States. http://www.usgenweb.com/
In addition, while not normally associated with African American issues, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has one of the most impressive collections of genealogical materials in the world through its Family History Library (FHL) in Salt Lake City, Utah.
It may be accessed at http://www.lds.org/; or directly via its free family history website at http://www.familysearch.org/
DNA Directs Our Cells
Without being overly scientific, now would be an appropriate time to give a short explanation of Cellular Biology. Cells are the structural units of all living things, (that is with the possible exceptions of viruses and prions).
DNA stands for Deoxyribo Nucleic Acid. DNA is the director, it gives instructions providing all of the information necessary for a living organism to grow and reside in the nucleus of every cell. These instructions tell the cell what role it will play in your body. In short DNA encodes a detailed set of plans; a blueprint for building different parts of the cell and telling it what special function to carryout. Consider an egg, the shell of which (protection) would be the cellular membrane. The yolk of the egg is the nucleus, where the DNA is found. The viscous like material, we call the egg white would be the cytoplasm. The cytoplasm is where we would find the cellular organelles, which are cellular components that are highly specialized for specific cellular activities. Organelles are similar to our organs, they get rid of excrement, move fluids and digest food. The organelle we will focus on is known as mitochondria. Although it is found in both men and women it is transmitted to each one of us through our mothers.
Mitochondria are the major energy production centers in a cell. The energy process is known as cellular respiration. Mitochondria have two membranes, an inner membrane and an outer membrane. The existence of this double membrane has led many biologists to theorize that mitochondria are the descendants of some bacteria that was ingested by a larger cell billions of years ago, but not digested. This fascinating theory of symbiosis might aid in explaining the development of modern cells. The double membrane of mitochondria makes it resistant to decomposition and a great preserver of its DNA material especially in bones.
Shortly after the process of fertilization, the sperms mitochondria die away, and the embryo is only left with maternal mitochondria. As such, we share the same mitochondria DNA as our brothers and sisters, but not our fathers. So the carriers of this dynamic footprint was mothers, maternal grandmothers, and maternal great-grandmothers, and so forth. It can be traced from generation to generation. The logical extension of this is that we all ultimately trace back to one woman who lived tens of thousand of years ago in Africa. In the scientific community, she is referred to as Mitochondrial Eve. Mitochondrial Eve’s descendants have incrementally populated the entire globe.
Mitsy Wilson and her quest for the past
By Gregg Reese
As Senior Vice President of Diversity Development for the Fox Entertainment Group, Mitsy Wilson relishes the holistic approach in striving for wider media representation of peoples of various ages, genders, races, and ethnicities. The infusion of an increasingly large mix of ethnicities into the United States and Los Angeles in particular, means that as the population gets bigger the world simultaneously seems to get smaller (which may be considered a literal definition of the phenomenon of globalization). The inclusion of a wide range of humanity makes sense economically, since it allows a corporation to understand its potential customer base, and in turn become better equipped to thrive in the modern marketplace. Towards this end, Wilson endeavors to ensure diversity behind the scenes as well as in front of the camera.
With this background in mind, it is not surprising that Wilson has long had an interest in the field of genealogy, (the study and tracing of biological or genetic information to establish one’s familial roots). Born in British Guiana, a South American country on the Atlantic coast, Wilson comes from a country of diverse individuals. With a multi-ethnic population of just over 800,000, British Guiana is also known as the land of six peoples, a reference to the six major ethnic groups that comprise it: 1) African (40%), 2) East Indian (51%), 3) Chinese, 4) Portuguese, 5) European, and 6) Amerindian. In fact, the word, “Guyana itself is derived from an Amerindian word which means “land of many waters”.
Similar to the foundation of Alex Haley and his “Roots” saga, the origin of Wilson’s interest in genealogy began with stories in her family passed down from generation to generation, specifically those of her grandmother, who was born in 1870, and lived to the ripe old age of 94. Wilson was recently honored by African Ancestry, Inc. of Washington, D.C., who honored her with a complimentary trace of her maternal or mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) lineage.
The results were fascinating. The matches to Wilson’s genetic sequence samples indicate that her heritage is 100 percent from the Kru group who inhabit the West African nation of Liberia, a country notable for being founded in 1822 by freed African American slaves. The Kru distinguished themselves by applying blue paint on their noses, and by being fiercely opposed to their own capture and enforced servitude by European slave traders, often choosing death before submitting to their imposed detainment. Wilson, who has traveled extensively throughout Africa, says that she and the rest of her family are very excited, as they regard these findings as another tool to use along with their ancestral oral traditions in attaining a measure of closure to that most rudimentary question of humanity: Who am I and where did I come from?