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).

About 30 percent of black males discover, via the paternal test, that their distant ancestor is a white European. At first I didn't understand. Then it made sense. In slavery days, it was white men who associated sexually with, took as their right, female slaves. Strom Thurmond was hardly the first white man, while professing moral outrage at the idea of race-mixing, to do just that himself.

Thurmond's attorney confirmed in December 2003 that in 1925, when he was 22, he had fathered a child with a black teenage housekeeper. Thurmond died in June 2003.

For "GMA," I took only the maternal test. The night before the story would run -- and my maternal lineage would be revealed -- I felt like I used to the night before the first day of school when I was a child: a combination of nervousness, anticipation and excitement.

Stolen From Africa

Robin Roberts was the "GMA" anchor who introduced the piece. My nervousness mounted. The closed door of my family past would soon be opened.

I was only dimly aware that we were on television when Robin announced that the result was: Ashanti people of Ghana. At once, I was stunned, amazed, and also suffused with pride. I knew a little about Ghana -- it was a former British colony and one of the first African countries to gain independence after World War II in 1957. I knew even less about the Ashanti except that they had a powerful kingdom and that their leaders were royalty. It didn't matter then what I didn't know. I now had a knowledge of which I had been deprived all my life.

After the show, I went for a walk. At first, I felt glorious, almost as if I had been reborn. And then I felt angry. Angry thinking about this person -- my ancestor -- who long, long ago had been, in the words of the Bob Marley song, "stolen from Africa." My mind focused on the word stolen. My eyes teared up. Yes, that was exactly it -- stolen.

The next day, I checked my British Airways frequent flier account. I had about 100,000 miles. I had enough miles to fly to Accra. I chose dates in March. It was the dry season, I learned from research, a good time to go. I got a ticket. I had no plan, no idea what exactly I would do beyond going to the land, to the people the genetic test said were my people.

A few weeks later, African Ancestry did the paternal test. The result: Temne people of what is now Sierra Leone. I kept thinking that my father, who died 10 years ago, would have been so proud.

Estranged From Our Roots

About a month ago, I was waiting to cross Seventh Avenue near Madison Square Garden. The doorman at the hotel across the street, a tall, powerfully built, brown-skinned man in a long, thick, gray overcoat looked at me. I nodded to him, still waiting for the traffic to clear enough so I could cross.

Then he spoke to me.

"You're the man on television," he said. "You're from Ghana."

I said, "Are you from Ghana?"

"Yes."

We shook hands. He smiled. We chatted for a little while. I told him I was going in March. He wished me well. We shook hands again, warmly, as brothers.

But the sad reality is that for most African-Americans, even as we call ourselves that, we are in so many ways estranged from our roots.

Cut off by centuries and thousands of miles, we have become disconnected from our own people, from who we are. Large populations of African immigrants inhabit most large cities, but rarely do we know any of them personally. Few of us bother to travel to Africa. It is yet another of the vicious cruelties of slavery.

Also dismaying is that for those of us who have gone to Africa, we discover that many Africans regard us as just another wealthy foreigner. Another "other." In Senegal, where I went on a bike trip two years ago, I was called "tubob" -- foreigner -- the same as the white people in the group. I have read that the same thing is common in Ghana, where the term is "obruni." I cannot blame them for this, but it is dispiriting.

American, but the Mind of an African

There are some signs this may be changing. I learned that Ghana's government is now actively encouraging African-Americans to move there, sure for economic reasons, but also spiritual and symbolic ones. And more and more black Americans are traveling to Africa in search of -- and hopefully finding -- a spiritual and ancestral connection.

There's a song called "African" recorded in the 1970s by Jamaican singer Peter Tosh, formerly of Marley's group, the Wailers. It has these lines: "Don't care where you come from/As long as you're a black man/You're an African/Don't mind your nationality/You have got the identity/Of an African."

So true.

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