Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Awareness of African Ancestry
By Gary L. Flowers
Executive Director & CEO
Black Leadership Forum, Inc.
August 9-16, 2009

Many African Americans beginning with this writer have wondered exactly where in Africa our roots can be traced. I had a heritage honor last week to present to my mother’s side of our family DNA results of our origin on the Motherland. Words cannot express my feelings in learning the most probable basis of our family’s lineage.

In 1976, as a thirteen year-old I watched with fascination Alex Haley’s Roots. I remember entire families—of all ethnicities—collectively musing about their family origins. For African Americans, Roots began, in earnest, a nationwide discussion of exactly where on the Continent of Africa we originated. My paternal uncle used “property” records, church records, and Census data to proceed on the avenue of ancestry. However, Roots symbolized the on ramp the genetic highway of heritage.
I began my DNA journey by researching companies offering DNA testing. I found that most of the DNA companies began to test in 2003. I remember viewing television shows on which celebrities were tested and their results aired publicly. Among the several options of DNA companies I selected one that focuses on mitochondrial DNA (tracing DNA of the mother’s side of the family). My rationale was that since European men raped an untold number of African women during the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade the most reliable predictor for African origin would be found in the DNA of African American women.

As a good researcher I also probed in to doubts of companies’ methodology. For example, mitochondrial DNA is widely thought to be reliable for identifying a region of origin and not necessarily a specific people (tribe). However, most scholars find that DNA research combined with genealogical tools such as historical records, archeology, and folklore provides families with the best chance of identifying their ethnic origin.

As the second part of our ancestor recognition at my maternal family reunion in Richmond, Virginia, my cousin and i unsealed the results: our matrilineal (mother’s side) roots are most probably connected to the Balanta people of the nation of Guinea-Bissau, and to the Mende people of the country Sierra Leone. Our patrilineal (father’s side) people of origin are most likely the Bamileke people of Cameroon. A sacred silence permeated the family gathering upon learning one more piece to the puzzle of our people’s past.

Relatives were provided research material that pulled demographic information form African countries genetically connected to our family. However, one of my cousins wanted to know: How are the genetic results read? Not being a scientist I explained that DNA is read in sequences. Because most humans have similar sequences (i.e. TGTACG an TCTACA) the DNA symbol that is different is considered a mutation. DNA mutation place in the sequence is then matched with a mutation in the same place of the DNA sequence found in African countries, and among specific regions and ethnic groups. Whew, that is as simple as I can make it!

Therefore, I recommend that ALL African American families purchase a test from some DNA company and dig deeper into their roots in African countries. As my cousin stated, “I was always wanted to know how to answer the ‘ancestor’ question without merely saying my people were ‘from Africa’. Now I can not only answer with a Continent but a country and a community.”

Awareness of African Ancestry is awesome!

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