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Historical Overview

Think of the Whitest person you know: someone with blond hair, blue eyes and almost translucent skin, not a drop of Black ancestry in them. Now think of the darkest person you know: someone richly endowed with traditional African features, not even a drop of White ancestry in their past. Well, guess what? Scientists now trace the origins of both of these people-and of all human beings who have ever walked the face of the earth-to Black Africa, to the region around what is now Ethiopia. As Spencer Wells, the director of National Geographic's massive Genographic Project, puts it: "Our species evolved in Africa, and a subset of Africans left that continent around 50,000 years ago to populate the rest of the world. Our earliest ancestors probably looked very much like modern Africans."

This would have been news to "Bull" Connor and Orval Faubus and countless other racists from our past. It is also news to most of our White brothers and sisters today. But it is an undeniable fact. We are all, in a very real sense, "Africans." The only question is how recently did our ancestors leave the Motherland? For the 35 million of us who are African- Americans-and for Black people in the Caribbean and Latin America-the answer is: very recently.

The first enslaved Africans arrived in the United States in the 17th century. So, in historical terms, our ancestors arrived here from Africa virtually "yesterday." This means that we are among the oldest Americans; but it also means that our relation to our African ancestors is recent.

This also means that we have many genetic "cousins" walking around the African continent today-a fact that has long obsessed me. Like 130 million other people, I watched every episode of Alex Haley's Roots when it first aired in 1977. And like many other African-Americans, I have yearned ever since to trace my own roots, to identify where in Africa my own ancestors came from, what tribe they were part of. Why is it important to do this? Two reasons. First, almost as soon as an African-American steps off a plane in Africa, he can't help but realize how "African" our people still are. Despite the horrors of the slave trade, African slaves brought their culture with them: their music, dances, religious beliefs, the way they cooked food, the way they walked, the way they lived--and loved--even the way they buried their dead. And many of these customs and traditions have been preserved, or subtly transformed, by our African- American ancestors. Indeed, if you go to a dance club in Africa, attend church, or eat a meal with an African family, you will be surprised at how much you can feel right at home, as if you have just met long lost relatives. The feeling is uncanny-and intensely pleasurable.

But there is another, perhaps more powerful, reason to trace one's African ancestry. For centuries, racists attempted to prevent us from connecting with our past. The entire system of slavery was dedicated to preventing us from preserving any memories of Africa, our ancestors' tribal identities, the languages we spoke there, the customs we practiced, the gods that we worshipped, even our African names. Slavery was a carefully conceived effort to rob our people of all family ties and the most basic sense of self-knowledge. Slave owners didn't want their slaves building family trees. They didn't want them to marry or maintain deep, abiding relations with their mothers and fathers, their grandparents or their siblings. They wanted them to feel no bonds of kinship, especially to Africa or to other Africans. Why? Because a family unit is a bond-and an extended family is a larger bond-and out of such bonds, loyalty and resistance are built. And the last thing in the world slave owners wanted was resistance from our ancestors who were slaves. Slave owners wanted our ancestors to think of themselves as nameless objects of property, plain and simple, like a chicken or a cow.

I am convinced that this still impacts our people today, crippling our ability to know ourselves by connecting with our family's past in the way that so many White Americans can. Ignorance and misunderstanding of our own history have served as a limitation on what we can achieve. We have internalized generations of doubt and fears about who we are as a people and what we can accomplish, just as White racists wanted us to do. And we continue to pay a terrible price for this.

Carter G. Woodson, the father of African-American history, famously wrote that a people cannot determine their future if they are ignorant of their past. This is why Malcolm Little took as his surname the letter "X"--which marked the hidden past of our people back through slavery to Africa, the past that racists sought to deny us. Malcolm wanted that "X" to serve as a constant reminder that it was our people's mission to fill in the blank slate that was the African-American collective past, the details of which, down to our family trees and our individual tribal origins, had been robbed or hidden from us. I believe that this is as true and necessary today as it has ever been, especially given our high school drop-out and teen-pregnancy rates.

Fortunately, something magical is happening in the African-American community today: Many of us are now using genealogy to trace our family trees on this side of the Atlantic, back deep into slavery. And then, when the paper trail ends and we have exhausted our sources, we are starting to look at something that our ancestors from Africa brought with them that not even the slave trade could take away: their distinctive strands of DNA. Because their DNA has been passed down to us-their direct descendants-it can serve as a key to unlocking our African past.

With cells collected from the insides of our mouths, geneticists can analyze small sections of our genetic material that form distinctive sequences known as "haplotypes," which can then be compared to DNA samples taken from people on the African continent. The process is a bit like matching fingerprints on CSI. A match between our DNA and the DNA from a person from Africa means that we have possibly found someone with whom we share a common ancestor, someone from our same "tribe"-be it Igbo or Yoruba, Fulani or Mende. Such a match can reveal an ethnic identity that has been lost for centuries, since the dreadful Middle Passage.

I would urge anyone who is interested to try and trace their family back to Africa, through genealogical research and DNA testing. There are several tests available, and each is surprisingly inexpensive, often less than a pair of designer sneakers. The test you choose to take depends on whether you are male or female, how much you can afford and what you want to find out. For example, to learn something about your father's line (if you are a male) or your mother's ancestral line (if you are male or female), you can take a lineage test. This test analyzes small portions of DNA that are passed down, virtually unchanged (like a genetic fingerprint), from father to son, and mother to child. Because these small sections of your DNA do not recombine from one generation to the next, they become "markers of descent," which scientists use to determine ancestry shared by a group, such as a tribe or an ethnic group. We have all heard of "paternity tests." Well, in a similar way, these single-marker tests can solve genealogical mysteries by verifying if two individuals are related. When tracing your African tribal ancestry, they can also suggest your ancestral origins back to Africa, telling you where your female ancestors or your male ancestors originated-long before they were captured as slaves.

Keep in mind that this process is still in its infancy. The available DNA data is not by any means complete, and these tests will not yield the names of any of the individuals on our distant family trees-just the general geographic areas in which our ancestors lived. Sometimes the tests yield multiple exact tribal matches, making it necessary for historians to interpret the most plausible result. AfricanDNA.com, which I co-founded with FamilyTreeDNA, offers this service. And sometimes you will discover that your DNA can be traced to a White ancestor, especially on your father's side, because some masters raped their female slaves. About 30 percent of us have White male ancestors.

Yet learning even these bare facts can be enormously satisfying. Receiving the results in the mail, and sharing them with your family and friends, is one of the most exciting experiences an African-American can have. I know it has been for me, and for my friends such as Oprah Winfrey and Chris Tucker, who appeared in my PBS program, African American Lives (part two in the series appears on PBS in February).

Of course, it can be painful. When one discovers the identity of an ancestor who lived as a slave, one necessarily is forced to relive the brutal details of the slave past, a past that our ancestors experienced not as we do through history books or films, but in their everyday lives. But I believe we must get past this pain. If we want to go forward as a people, we need to be able to understand where we came from. We need to get ourselves grounded, and the process starts by grounding ourselves in our own family's extended past, our own genealogical "invisible network," like that cell phone ad says. This process is so nourishing because it can enable a person to feel the inimitable sense of connection, of belonging that can only be found by unearthing the branches of your family tree, your very own roots, roots that extend back through the slave past directly into the verdant soil of Africa.

Adapted from ebony magazine , December 2007