My Virtual Journey to the Motherland: How DNA Helped Me to Reclaim My Stolen Past
There has always been a little thing gnawing at the back of my mind; something that has been somewhat elusive to pinpoint yet left me feelingempty. For most of my life I never really knew what it was. However, last year I was finally able to put my finger on it. I now know what it is and it's something most people take for granted.
Just as a child, raised by a single mother, might feel a sense of pain when Father's Day rolls around and there is no father present. Or, an adopted child longs to know more about his birth parents, while genuinely feeling love and devotion to his adoptive parents. I had a similar feeling regarding a major gap in my family tree. As a person whose ancestors were snatched from their homeland, stripped of their names, family, and language, and sold into slavery, I have always known there was a major piece of my puzzle missing. Who am I and where did I come from? Most of the time, I never even think about it, but every now and then, this issue would surface. Occasionally, friends would talk about their European, Scandinavian, or Italian roots. Even my husband and his family often reminisce about their Irish heritage. However, for me I could only look at the great African continent on a globe and wonder "where?"
However, there may now be a way to heal that void many blacks feel. In February 2006, a documentary aired on PBS called African American Lives. In it, several noted African Americans took part in a virtual trip back to a time before the slave trade and so they could reconnect with their African roots. In an effort to achieve this goal, a team of genetic scientists took samples of their DNA and conducted several tests. I knew DNA testing has been used for several years to establish paternity or help solve crimes. But thanks to genetic scientists and anthropologists, DNA was able to prove that all of our ancestors (regardless of what ethnicity we identify with currently) originated in Africa. In addition, viewers learned that there are three tests widely used to help someone learn more about their genetic roots:
1. A DNA test known as admixture test can accurately breakdown the ethnic composition of a person contributed by both parents.
2. A mitochondrial DNA test (mtDNA) can trace back an individual's maternal line.
3. A Y-DNA test can trace back an individual's paternal line; however, this is test can only be conducted on men.
All tests are conducted with a simple check swab that is mailed to a lab. The documentary primarily focused on the first two techniques to aid in their search for participants' roots.
After watching this program, I couldn't help but wonder what information would be unearthed about me if I had the same tests conducted. Relying on the same testing companies used in the documentary, I first had my admixture test conducted through Ancestry by DNA in California. As with the program participants, I learned you can't judge a book by its cover. The DNA contributed by both my mother and father revealed I was 82% Sub-Saharan African, 8 % Native American, 6% East Asian, and 4% European. Of the all information, this test revealed, I found the East Asian to be the most stunning. To put this in perspective, the research information indicates that 6% East Asian can mean I had a great, great grandfather who was full Chinese. Afterwords, I learned that many Chinese immigrants were hired as cheap labor to work on southern plantations after the Civil War. Although no one in my family was aware of anyone of Asian descent in our family, they also were not willing to say it wasn't possibility.
I now had the "who am I question" partially answered. But to know precisely who I am and, more importantly, where I came from I would need to do the mtDNA test. In the documentary, each participant hoped their mtDNA test would answer that question for them. In some cases the information were clear, such was the case for actor Chris Tucker who learned his mother-line came from Angola. Unfortunately, in other cases (as in astronaut Mae Jemison's case), the information was too murky to obtain an accurate reading. This time, I needed to send a cheek swab to Roots for Real located in England. A great deal was resting on the results from this mtDNA test; but I prepared myself for the worse. Six weeks later, I had the answer I had hoped for. In fact, the results exceeded my expectations.
All mtDNA samples are compared to the first ever mtDNA sequence analysis completed in 1981 by an anonymous donor (also scientifically referred to as Eve) and is known as the Cambridge Reference Sequence. Based on how closely an individual's mtDNA matches this sequence determines their haplagroup classification. While some individuals may not be able to obtain a clear reading from their sample, mine was perfect. In fact, I like to think I won the trifecta. First of all, they were able to accurately determine I originated from the L2 haplagroup also called Daughter of Eve. Second, the sample revealed that my mother-line has strong ties to the Temne Tribe in Sierra Leone. Third, currently stored in the lab's database is the mtDNA of eight individuals who have the exact same mtDNA as mine. This means that sometime within the past 10,000 years (a mere blink of an eye geologically speaking) we shared a same female ancestor; thus making us mitochondrial cousins.
When I first received this information, I emailed all my family and friends a copy of the results with a note that said "I have a home." That was when it hit me-all this time I longed to be like everyone else. Thanks to DNA testing, I can now erase one of the last remaining stigmas of slavery from my life by reclaiming a major piece of my past.
But in a society that seems to be redefining race and ethnicity, is this information really necessary? I say yes, more now than ever before. Because it is hard for us as individuals to reach for the stars when we are subtly reminded about our stolen past and that holds us back. At the beginning of this school year, my son's first grade teacher decided to a "getting to know you" exercise and marked on a map where all of the children's ancestors came from. An innocent exercise; however, with my son being the only child in his class descended from slaves, there would have been no specific place in Africa to say where he was from, prior to the DNA tests. This would have made him feel different from the other kids. But thanks to the tests, he was able to proudly say his ancestors came from Sierra Leone.
Also, with my admixture results, I'm subtly launching a revolution. In the past when completing surveys with questions regarding my ethnicity, I generally would ignore them. Not because I was ashamed of being black but because I don't like being categorized and because my decision-making is not solely based on my skin color. With my admixture results, I now check off all that apply, in hopes I can skew their data and perhaps one day people will stop asking that question. I'm still holding out hope that one day I will not be judged by the color of my skin, but by the content of my character.
It is amazing how a simple cheek swab can have such a liberating effect on an individual. In some ways it is rather fitting. Historically, science was molded to reinforce and justify racist policies designed to oppress primarily (but not exclusively) blacks. Now, many scientists have devoted their lives to accurately dispel the many falsehoods created previously by science and sanctioned by our government. DNA testing goes a long was to righting the past wrongs. If these results can have this powerful an impact in one person, imagine the impact it could have as more and more people get tested and our nation ultimately realized we are all one people. Admixture testing alone would prove there is no "one pure race" and that knowledge could be instrumental in ending the racial strife that continues to segregate our nation. The way I see it, that could only lead to a more perfect union.