Many African-Americans are using technology to aid their search for identity. While there are many ways to use DNA, some black Americans are using it to supplement genealogical research to trace their roots in Africa.
Within the past 10 years, more than 20 DNA testing companies have developed. One company called African Ancestry has become the leading firm for clients to find a genetic link to Africa. DNA lab companies can provide genetic information from the paternal line by testing the y-chromosome and the maternal line with the mitochondrial DNA.
The Washington, D.C.-based company was featured in the 2006 PBS documentary, African American Lives. More than 1 million viewers watched the program, which featured celebrities including Oprah Winfrey and Chris Tucker.
African Ancestry was co-founded by a Chicago-based geneticist, Dr. Rick Kittles, and Gina Paige. It offers DNA tracing to determine a link to a present-day African country.
“We have no other way of finding out where in Africa we come from, so what we provide answers to a lot of questions,” said Paige. “African-Americans were not even recorded as people, so using DNA helps people with varying ancestry interests. It helps genealogists connect the gap to Africa.”
She said among the highest number of requests are those from Chicago.
Famous black Americans like actress Kimberly Elise and Judge Glenda Hatchett tested their DNA through African Ancestry. But internationally-renowned, Chicago-based genealogist Tony Burroughs warns that the test is flawed and people should be aware of the limitations.
“Just because celebrities are doing the test, doesn’t mean it’s real,” Burroughs said.
The company claims to have the largest database of its kind. It compares a client’s DNA with its database of more than 20,000 sequences representing more than 80 indigenous ethnic groups in Africa.
But for many black Chicagoans, the DNA test restores the missing link to Africa.
“We, as African Americans, struggle to understand our identity,” said Rev. Albert Sampson, senior pastor of Fernwood United Methodist Church in Roseland. For Sampson – the only member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference ordained by Martin Luther King Jr. – identity is an important aspect in his personal life.
He said he does not know his father and had only met his mother three times. He explained that his mother lived in a mental institution in Massachusetts, where she was sexually assaulted.
When the pastor received the results of his DNA tests from African Ancestry in 2004 and 2006, he said it gave him strength.
“The results helped me with my cultural, spiritual and psychological identity,” Sampson recalled.
The results showed that his paternal line shares ancestry with the Igbo ethnic group in Nigeria and his maternal line connects with the Temne people of Sierra Leone. When Sampson visited Sierra Leone in 2005, he spoke with village elders who gave him the name, Pa Sorie Kamara.
Sampson said ‘kamara’ means ‘house’ and ‘sorie’ means ‘they snatched you from us and now we’re snatching you back.”
“Our identity and history is being threaded again with the use of science,” he said.
But there are still many skeptics. Marjorie Sholes, former president of the California African-American Genealogical Society, has not taken the DNA Africa link test. She maintains that the database of the genetic information of indigenous Africans is not large enough.
“The DNA hype has gone far among African-Americans,” she said.
Rick Kittles and Tony Burroughs talked about their differing views on DNA testing in separate interviews. Here are some of their responses.
Why are some genealogists skeptical about DNA testing to find genetic links to Africa?
Kittles: Most of the arguments and skepticism is due to a misunderstanding or a naïveté about the science. That’s the challenge for people who do this, like myself. We have to be able to explain the science to the lay in a fashion that they can understand.
Burroughs: When you do any genealogy – African-Americans or European-Americans or whatever – genealogy is based on the evidence. So that evidence can be a lot of different kinds of things. So each and every one of those pieces of evidence that you collect has to be weighed and judged if it is accurate or not, truthful or not, or valid or not. So any evidence that you look at can have strengths and weaknesses. So no one piece of evidence necessarily has a greater weight than any other evidence. You do your genealogy based on the evidence.
What are some of the limitations in using DNA for genealogy?
Burroughs: Every piece of evidence has its limitations. One of the limitations in using y-chromosome DNA tests is that you have to have a direct male line. The research that I’ve had the most success on is not my y-chromosome male line, meaning my paternal ancestors.
Kittles: It’s just one lineage that’s tested at a time for the service we provide. So we have thousands of lineages that make up our genome, our DNA. The test only offers information on one of those lineages. You can get multiple tests and test multiple people in your family. Some people have had, like 12 lineages tested in their family. So, one of the limitations is that it doesn’t tell you everything. You have to sort of do further testing. In fact, sometimes, some of the traditional genealogy sometimes has to be done too.
Why are many African-Americans excited about the possibility of finding a genetic link to people in Africa?
Kittles: The experiences that African-Americans have had in America make it difficult for us to trace our ancestry. Our history has been robbed. Other people in this country have not had this history to deal with. I think that’s part of why there is such a high interest among African-Americans to do the DNA testing.
Burroughs: We have been cut off from our African roots and I believe there’s a natural yearning to try to know who you are and where you came from. And so we know that we do not know our African ancestors, we do not know which ethnic groups or tribes we came from. That’s one of the reasons people do genealogy. Genealogy is the most popular hobby in America. Anybody doing genealogy is doing it because they want to know where they came from, they want to know who their ancestors are – whether black or white or Asian. Now, with the Africa thing, when DNA came along, people thought this is a quick fix. That all I have to do is pay $350 and they can tell me where I came from in Africa. They don’t have a clue that it ain’t that simple. But I think it’s natural for African-Americans to want to know that information.