One morning, I was playing on my organ - not very well, I must
admit - a piece of Bach’s music called “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring.” Then
my mind started wandering: Bach composed this in the early 1700s.
What were my ancestors doing around the time that Bach was writing this?
They were probably still in Africa. Hey, that wasn’t that long ago.
After all, we’re still playing the “oldies but goodies” from that era.
For African Americans, our time in North America, compared to the time we were in Africa, is a very short one. Yet we know next to nothing about our past. Just think about it. If you’re a European or Asian American, your last name tells you something about your ancestry. If you’re a Native American, you know your ethnic group. But if you’re an African American all you know is that you came from somewhere on the vast continent of Africa. It’s sort of like being an adopted child and wondering who your biological parents are.
Well, something happened to me recently. Figuratively, I found my real parents and I want to share with you, how this came about.
WJLA-TV, a Washington, D.C. television station, sent me to Sierra Leone, West Africa in 1991 to do a story on the links between Africans and African Americans in the Sea Islands of North Carolina and Georgia. In the course of doing the story, I met a family in Harris Neck, Georgia named the Morans. What was interesting was they had preserved a little nonsense song with words like, “A waka ma mona.” They thought they were just singing gibberish handed down through the generations. Well, it turned out the song was in the Mende language of Sierra Leone and the Morans learned that they must be descendants of the Mende.
Over the proceeding years, I heard about something called DNA fingerprinting. I read that through the technique, which authorities use to prove paternity to make “deadbeat” dads pay child support, one could also trace ancestry.
My interest peaked even further last summer, after WJLA-TV had assigned to me a story on a series of rapes in Southeast Washington. Through DNA testing, the FBI learned that a man who had raped six to eight women in DC was that same man who had raped several women in Florida.
After that, I went on the Internet and typed “DNA” in a search engine to see what I could find that might help me to trace my ancestry back to Africa. I ran across a web page on the Human Genome Diversity Project. This page said that National Institutes of Health (NIH), in cooperation with health agencies around the world, is collecting DNA data worldwide for the purpose of tracing the origins of disease. The article said that by the year 2003, they would have the entire world’s DNA in a computer data base, but that they had much of the information already.
Now I began to wonder whether I might not be able to find my real parents after all? I sent an e-mail to NIH asking if it were possible for me to trace my African ancestry using data from their Diversity Project? The folks at NIH referred me to Howard University, which NIH said was in the process of opening a Human Genome Center specifically to do work relating to African Americans.
I saw another e-mail, this time to Dr. Georgia Dunston, a Howard professor, who had worked with NIH. And her response: Yes, it can be done.
She said they have at Howard a geneticist named Dr. Rick Kittles, who is experienced in tracing “roots.” After further research, I learned that Dr. Kittles was responsible for tracing the African origins of skeletal remains recovered at the African Burial Ground in New York. That was a cemetery discovered 20 feet below the surface by workers excavating land in the early 1990s to build a new federal building near New York’s city hall.
In mid September, I went with my camerawoman, Pege Gilganon, to Dr. Kittles’ office at Howard. We proceeded to videotape my story on DNA as a way for an African American to trace his ancestry. Dr. Kittles, who is as dark complexioned as I am, warned me that it might not work. He said had he tried to trace his male ancestry and ran into a White man.
He also told me that he has only two ways of tracing ancestry. First, there’s the tracing of the Y chromosome. Only males have that in their DNA. It is passed from father to son. That’s how they were able to claim that President Thomas Jefferson fathered at least one child 200 year ago by his slave Sally Hemmings.
Second, there what’s called Mitochondrial DNA. That is a DNA fingerprint that is passed from mother to child. However, male children do not pass it onto their offspring, only the female children do.
Dr. Kittles took my two viles of my blood to isolate those two parts of DNA - the Y chromosomes and the Mitochondrial DNA - to compare them with a data base of DNA samples collected from around the world to determine whether he could find similar matches among other populations.
After a couple of weeks, I called him to see how things were going. He said there was good news. My Y chromosomes, was African, meaning that—unlike him—there were no white grandfathers in my male line. Great! I told him, don’t tell me anymore. I want to be there with the camera to get the full report.
In late November, my camerawoman and I went back to Dr. Kittles office at Howard for the full results.
“Okay, doc,” I said, “Where do my ancestors come from?”
Dr. Kittles said he had no doubt they came from what is today Nigeria. More specifically, he said they come from the area in and around Ibadan, in southwestern Nigeria. How did he know that? Well, by comparing the data base of African DNA. He said that in the entire continent of Africa, the only place where he found the same Y chromosomes that I have was Ibadan. Further, that means that those men in the data base from Ibadan are my distant cousins because we both got that Y chromosomes from the same man.
My mind was racing. Ibadan. Ibadan. Where is that? I had never heard of it. We immediately went to the map and I saw that it was just north of Lagos. And a big city!
“That’s Yoruba, territory,” I said to him. “Does that mean I am a Yoruba?”
Dr. Kittles refused to say that. He said that as geneticists, he can only trace me back to a geographical area. He cannot trace back my ethnicity.
But that was good enough for me. I know that southwestern Nigeria was Yoruba territory 200 years ago just as it is today. And the Yoruba, what an ethnic group! They’re the only Africans to have exported a significant religion to the New World. I have been to Brazil where the people in Salvador still use the Yoruba language as they practice the Yoruba religion, Ife, which in Brazil they call Candomble. They practice it in Cuba where they call it Santeria and there are Ife societies here in the United States. Of course there were other ethnic groups in southwestern Nigeria 200 years ago, so perhaps I am not a Yoruba, but who cares at least I know where I come from.
“Okay, doc,” I continued. “What about my mom’s side?”
Dr. Kittles said the trace for Mitochondrial DNA was more difficult. He said it was definitely African, but that he found it in not one, but three places: Ethiopia-Somalia, Niger and Guinea. He speculated that on my mother’s side, I descended from an Afro-Asiatic ethnic group that existed, or had existed, in all three of those places. But he said he was willing to infer that my mother’s people had actually left the African continent from Guinea. The reason is, few enslaved Africans brought to North America came from Niger or Ethiopia. A lot of them came from Guinea.
Again, being a student of history, my mind immediately focused on the Fulani ethnic group. They are a nomadic Afro-Asiatic group. They live in both Guinea and Niger today as they did 200 years ago. And historians speculate that at least a part of that group, the Shuwa Arabs, came from the east - Upper Egypt, Nubia, and Ethiopia area - migrated west, met the Fulanis, and were absorbed by them.
So, there I had it. My blood cried out: your
dad’s folks were probably Yorubas and your mother’s were Fulanis.
And now, you are a real African!
Sam Ford is a news reporter for ABC affiliate WJLA-TV in Washington, D.C. Ford’s heartwarming story, In Search of an Old Kentucky Home, on his intriguing search for the home of his once enslaved ancestors appeared in the 1997 issue of Port Of Harlem. Reach him at SamFord@bellatlantic.net.