Fri, 18 Sep 2009 Feature Article

Black Americans Are Using DNA To Trace Their African Roots

Black Americans Are Using DNA To Trace Their African Roots

Soon, many Ghanaian families would need to create extra spaces in their households to welcome their brothers and sisters whose forefathers were shipped away to work as slaves in Europe and America. Years ago, our black American friends came as visitors to see what Africa looks like. They had heard stories about the depravity on the continent and the wretched lives of the world's poorest people, and they came to see for themselves. The slave castles in Cape Coast were their favourite destination, where they were lectured on how their great-great-great grandfathers were doled down from the Door of no Return into waiting ships to ferry them across the seas to America. The purpose of their visit was to reconnect and claim some identity for themselves as Africans. Some of them wept uncontrollably when they saw how their people were treated before they were taken to what is now called the United States of America. They stayed in posh hotels and tried local meals for the cameras. Some of them adopted Ghanaian names like Akua and Kofi, even though they did not remember the day they were born. After the funfair, they boarded planes and headed for Texas and Massachusetts and never came back. Of course, they always made sure that they had bought some crafts from the Arts Centre in Accra. They would also wear the Batakari and our traditional Tie and Dye prints. Those were to serve as proof that they had visited their roots. They also took lots of pictures.

That was the social phase of the reconnection and identification exercise. Now, they have turned to science to make assurance double sure about the tribes and clans they hail from. It is a very serious project that has seen some black Americans give up their jobs to have time to trace their ancestry. Veronica Henry, an IT professional in corporate Las Vegas, quit her job in 2007 to set up after she had traced her ancestry to the Mende people of Sierra Leone in West Africa through a DNA test. She reported that: “I finally feel some of the separation between myself as an African -American and other Africans is beginning to fall away.” Several hundreds of African- Americans are following suit to trace their lineage since scientific breakthrough made it possible to trace ancestry with DNA mapping. Now, you can get a free DNA report on your family tree and accredited siblings DNA tests on the internet. So, many African- Americans are in a hurry to reconnect to their forgotten roots. Veronica Henry has gone ahead to apply for a Sierra Leonean citizenship, to complete her self identification and formally count herself among the people of Sierra Leone.

African Ancestry, the American company that specialises in tracing the roots of black Americans, says since 2003 it has successfully conducted some 15,000 tests, but it estimates that more than 100,000 African-Americans can now tell their family tree because it traces the linkage with the matrilineal gene, which spread to all the female members of a family. Usually, the results show matches in 27 African countries, prominent among which are the Hausa and Fulani people of Nigeria and the Tikar and Bamileke groups from Cameroon. The process of tracing ancestry is a simple one that involves taking a swab of DNA and analysing the resulting mitochondrial DNA for maternal ancestry or the Y-chromosome if paternal lineage is to be established.

It is not only African-Americans who are tracing their roots; many Europeans and Americans whose roots are in Ireland, have also taken steps to establish some identity for themselves. While theirs may be just a curious adventure, the African-American has more than a natural responsibility to reconnect to links that were atrociously truncated during the transatlantic slave trade. The evil trade that flourished between the 1600s and the 1900s saw some 10million Africans shipped to the West, with about 4million landing in America. At a point, they did not know which part of Africa they had been ferried from. Commentators allege that the slaves suffered greater indignities on the way to their destinations than perhaps at the plantations of their slave masters. Slaves that were too weak to carry on were left to die after days of neglect and mistreatment on the ships. Wicked slave masters deliberately threw their possessions (slaves) into the sea, so that they could claim fat insurance on them. Life on the plantations was not any better. Some slaves were made to eat their own faeces, and beating and maiming were more forthcoming than food and water, which were taken at the will of the master.

This is the bitter past of the African-American. So, while Ghanaians make the 'magya otu (Master gun) please don't shoot me' jokes, to tease Fantes, their African siblings in America do not get the funny side of the most abominable institutionalised trafficking that quantified human beings in economic units. And they are not leaving it at that; they want to befriend the same grounds from where their forefathers were transported abroad like cargo, to work in servitude. That would provide some healing, but it would also give them some definition of who and what they really are, even as they enjoy the goodies in what has been home for them in America. They may be a lost people because they are sandwiched between the land of the white where they are a minority, and the plantations of their kinsfolk in Africa, where they are still deemed strangers. But they know their roots are in Africa, where the sun shines brightly all winter and summer.

But how do their brothers and sisters in Africa and in the Diaspora, see them? Ghanaians in America call them Akatafoo, a derogatory term that translates into a regrettable combination of disappointed whites and disinherited blacks. But black Americans have never wanted to be whites; they are proud of their identity as blacks in white America, where they were viewed as the lowest colorcast of people largely because Europeans succeeded in transporting their notion of black inferiority around the world. They are generally seen (although it is usually never the case) as people who are wayward, carefree, freethinking and school-shunning control freaks. Many of them are in the entertainment business, sports and other physical ventures, which a prominent African-American scholar, Dr Lavelle Ingram, attributes to “the long history of slavery [which] resulted in extraordinary physical endurance and strength along with a high value on perseverance.” Those who are smart are however really very smart. Many great inventions bear their copyright. Those in big corporate jobs distinguish themselves very well, sometimes better than their white peers. And now, there is Obama, who isn't exactly African-American, at least not with the hyphen, but an American who, as he acknowledged in Ghana recently, has “the blood of Africa within me.” Michelle is.

In Britain, the descendants of the first generation of Jamaicans are called Ahwediemfoo in Ghanaian circles. They are also identified by their brand of the English language, which is marked by the repetitive use of 'isn't it', properly mispronounced as 'innit.' They are not viewed any differently from how their African-American brothers and sisters are seen in America. The youth necessarily need mentors to be successful. They have their fingerprints on crime and other social problems. Very few of them are in high profile jobs in corporate Britain. They are generally not doing very well in Britain.

Interestingly, while African-Americans are eager to reconnect to their African roots and separate their Americanness from their proud African heritage, their Jamaican friends in Britain are happy to be British or at worst Jamaican, than anything African. So, while a Jamaican lady I befriend in England felt I should be happy that she had proposed to accompany me to Ghana on a visit, with all her Jamaican-British 'royalty', Ghanaian bachelors in America have become hotcakes for their African-American sisters. The Ghanaians, it is reported, make better husbands because they are mostly well educated and take care of their children. Even if the marriages are immigration-induced ones that would help regularise their stay in America, they are making the sacrifices of their wives very worthwhile by behaving themselves. Perhaps, that also explains why Alomo bitters and other locally produced energy-enhancing drinks sell very fast in America.

At the same rate, there are many stories of Ghanaians who were duped in 'Green Card marriages' by black American ladies. They would continuously demand huge sums of money from their would-be husbands until the day they are supposed to accompany them for the interview at the immigration offices. They would either put off their phones or threaten to go the police. That loss is often compensated for in other Ghanaian gentlemen who get the added naked bonus of pulling the sheets over their Akata 'wives', even though that business is normally not part of the bargain. Despite the unspoken suspicions, African-Americans and African immigrants in the States seem to get along quite well, unlike the Jamaicans in Britain who are quick to dissociate themselves from their African kinsfolk. That feeling of superiority (over a fellow black) seems to be endorsed by some uneducated white Britons, who see the African immigrant as an unpolished stranger.

Since the abolition of slavery some 200 years ago, African-Americans and other blacks in Europe have always made great efforts at self definition and reconnection. British playwright and actor Kwame Kwei Armah, changed his name from Ian Roberts when he traced his roots to Ghana. There has been Kwame Toure, (Stokley Carmichael) and an African-American friend of mine who insists he wants to be called Kojo Akwaaba. The Akwaaba greeting was the first thing he saw at the Kotoka airport when he visited Ghana, and he would not be persuaded to accept another name. They are eager to be part of their folks in Africa, but do their folks see them as part of them? Andrew Young, a former US ambassador to the United Nations says “in many ways, black Americans are resented in Africa. A lot of the time, they bring this on themselves because they go back to Africa like they belong and in their minds they do belong, but not in the minds of the governments.” Their African hosts see them as rich black strangers brought up in the ways of the Whiteman. They are targeted and robbed when they come seeking their roots. In the end, they are rooted out of the family tree they came to join. It has often been asked: How far can real connection be restored, even with the help of the DNA? But that would not deter the yearning African spirit in the African-American. They are Africans.

Benjamin Tawiah
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Ghana / Africa /