It's one of those common, chit-chatty, small-talky questions that you encounter when meeting someone new: Where are you from? That's easy enough. Chicago, maybe, New York or Detroit, perhaps. If you're getting to know another black person, then you may also hear, "Where are your people from?" Because, of course, we northerners, more often than not, have a grandmother or great-grandfather who escaped the south in the early part of the last century for the promise of more jobs and less Klan. So, probably you can answer that, too. Mississippi, maybe, Georgia or Arkansas, perhaps. And before that? Cue the crickets and the awkward change of subject. If your ancestors came to this country by way of slave ships, then chances are, you have no idea where your history begins. Yes, Africa, obviously, but Africa is a continent of 54 countries (as recognized by the United Nations) and over a billion people of various ethnicities and cultures.
Our fellow Americans whose families came here by their own discretion have had an advantage over us in that they usually know from exactly where their people hail, down to the amount of German, Scottish or Polish blood pumping through their veins. They've got an identity that transcends the space and time they occupy at any given moment. Good for them. The joke that's a fixture on Black Twitter is the quippy response to the naïve questions they ask like, "Interesting last name, what's the history behind it?" The punchline goes something like, "Well, Susan, presumably, it belonged to the slave owner who owned my ancestors." A sarcastic but effective way to point out a harsh and painful reality, which is that our heritage was strategically and meticulously stripped away. Dr. Gina Paige says, "We are the original victims of identity theft."
Paige is the president and co-founder of African Ancestry, a genealogical research company that makes use of a database of over 33,000 samples of African lineages to trace our roots back, generation by generation, to the motherland. A swab of the inside of your cheek and they can tell from what present-day country your ancestors came, and in most cases, with what ethnic group – or tribe – you share ancestry. The company's MatriClan test analyzes the mitochondrial DNA that we all inherit from our mothers, and that your mother inherited from her mother, and so on, back 500-2,000 years. The PatriClan test analyzes the Y chromosome that men inherit from their fathers in the same fashion.
"African Ancestry was born out of the public demand, the community demand," Paige says. It was geneticist and co-founder Dr. Rick Kittles' research on genetic variation in African peoples which he started at Howard University that spurred the demand. After USA Today ran an article about his work, Kittles says, "the switchboard at the university was shut down because there were so many calls." He and lifelong entrepreneur Paige linked in 2003 to start African Ancestry. "I wanted African-Americans to get closer to West Africans, to sort of see the connection beyond just history but to say, 'Hey, these folk are related to me in one way. We share a common ancestor, genetically.'"
Paige says the growth and interest has been slow and steady. "The process is a long one," she says. "For the black community, when we started in 2003, nothing like this really existed, nothing like this has ever existed before. It's brand new. So, it took a lot of education on many levels. One: to get black folks to acknowledge that we are of African ancestry, and that it's important to know where in Africa you're from, and then, that there's technology that will allow you to answer that question." The team also faced skepticism from their colleagues in the scientific community. Kittles says, "The science has grown tremendously. Things are a lot more routine now. Back then, there were only two other companies that were doing this – one here in the U.S. and the other one was in the U.K. – and so there was a lot of questioning the credibility and the accuracy." His database of samples has grown and, of course, so has the "utility of DNA testing." We know a lot more about the science and its possibilities than we did 15 years ago. And on a social level, he says, "Folks are a lot more savvy. I think there's been this enormous increase in genetic literacy in the black community. We contributed to a lot of that increase." He says he sees like people forming social groups and connections online and in-person, for instance. Those that trace their roots back to Cameroon have adopted the moniker "Camericans."
Other companies do similar DNA analysis – Ancestry and 23 and Me come to mind – but African Ancestry is black-owned and black-centered. "We're in the business of identity. We exist to help black people transform how we view ourselves and how we view Africa. They're in the business of identifying family relationships and linkages, so it's very different," Paige says. Ancestry, for instance, started out allowing its users access to census, birth and death records in an effort to unearth branches of a family tree. Only fairly recently did the company add the option of a DNA test, and still, their tests consider your total DNA makeup versus tracking a single lineage, like African Ancestry. This means the results can only be shared amongst siblings, Paige explains. But with African Ancestry, your maternal results, for example, are pertinent to every blood relative on your mother's side. Also, "We have the largest database of indigenous African lineages in the world," Paige says. So, the other guys can only tell you from what general region in Africa your foremothers or forefathers hailed, not that they are of the Fulani people of Nigeria.
Some of the most notable black celebrities and public figures have taken the African Ancestry test: Oprah Winfrey, Spike Lee, Erykah Badu, Common, Whoopi Goldberg, Morgan Freeman, Jesse Jackson and Maya Angelou, to offer a short catalog. LeVar Burton was the first luminary to take the test. "The media was positioning us as a 21st century Roots, so we got Kunta Kinte," Paige says. She calls Chadwick Boseman "a quiet champion of African Ancestry." Boseman took the test years ago but in his interviews and during press junkets for Black Panther, he'd credit African Ancestry as a tool he used to prepare for his role as T'Challa. Boseman is Yoruba from Nigeria; Limba and Mende from Sierra Leone; and Jola from Guinea-Bissau. "That kind of support the week before the launch of the most successful black movie ever, that just so happens to be focused on Africa, had a tremendous impact," she says.
Beyond the ancestral connection, Paige and Kittles want to see this technology start to be used to affect health and wellness. "Personalized medicine is here," Paige says. "Now that we've become – or are becoming – comfortable as a community with the idea of using genetics to help us understand our ancestry, it's time for us to move into becoming comfortable with using genetics to help us understand our health." This is where past, present and future meet with tangible physical and psychological results. "We are all human, but in our humanness, we have differences. And our differences help inform who we are and how we move through the world, and as black people – particularly in the United States – we're at a disadvantage," Paige says.
"We lost our names, our languages, our ability to honor our ancestors and our families were torn apart. So, if you don't know your name, you can't speak your language, you can't talk to your gods and you don't know where your family is or who your family is, then how could you possibly know who you are? Where you're from is, psychologically, a critical component of who you are. It doesn't mean that you can't define yourself in other ways, but it's an important foundational component that we have found empowers people in ways that they never imagined."
Paris Giles is BLAC Detroit's associate editor.
Starting Black Friday through the end of the year, African Ancestry will offer special promotions including discounts and gift-with-purchase deals. Gift certificates are also available, so you can give the gift of identity this holiday season. Visit africanancestry.com for more information.