Finding Out Where I Came From

There is a handful of fundamental, or to use a more pretentious word for it, existential, questions. Who are we? Where are we going? Where do we come from? It is the nature of these searching queries that there are no answers.

But people, most Americans certainly, can at least figure out where they came from in the literal sense. They can trace their family trees and discover their ancestors were from, say, Ireland or Japan or India.

But we black Americans cannot. For the vast majority of us, the limbs of our family trees have been severed. We call ourselves African-Americans because history teaches us our forebears came to this country from Africa. But they came as slaves, and the slave traders did not bother with such details as recording the names of their human cargo or noting from where they were taken.

For as long as I can remember, I have wondered where my ancestors were from and how they were seized. All that time, I assumed this information -- where I came from -- would be forever unknowable. I felt cheated and, in some sense, incomplete.

Then, one day last summer, I stumbled upon an article in Time magazine about DNA testing that could trace African-Americans' ancestry to specific parts of Africa and even, theoretically at least, to particular tribes or peoples. I was fascinated and thrilled. The article explained that there were mutations in the sequence of one's genetic code that were shared by the inhabitants of particular parts of Africa.

Aware of the Critics but Intrigued

The tests were not without critics, who said the databases used by the handful of companies doing these tests were not big enough to make any match with 100-percent certainty. And, I would learn later, because of mixing with outside groups hundreds or thousands of years ago, not every member of a tribe, say, Demne in Sierra Leone, had the "Demne genetic code."

But, even given these limitations, its adherents thought that rough geographic matches and, in some instances, specific matches, could be made with a high degree of reliability.

I was intrigued, for personal reasons of course. I wanted to take a DNA test to see where and to whom my ancestry was connected. I also thought it was a great story for ABC News.

I was able to persuade producers at "Good Morning America" to let me do this story for them. They agreed. I would do a background story on the tests, how they worked, and their significance for African-Americans. But "GMA" proposed a dramatic touch that had not occurred to me. I would take the test, and the results would be revealed on the show -- live.

Using a Washington, D.C.-based DNA testing company called African Ancestry, I swabbed my cheeks to collect saliva, sealed the cotton swab in an envelope, and mailed the samples to the company.

Males can be tested for both maternal and paternal lineage. The former test is done using something called mitochondrial DNA. The paternal test examines DNA passed via the Y, or male, chromosome. That means a male can test both lineages, but a woman can only test for maternal ancestry (or else, ask her brother, if she has one, to get the result for paternal lineage).

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