By Manny Otiko
Isaiah Washington with his Sierra Leone passport. He used DNA testing to trace his roots to the Mende people.
A new book by Columbia sociology professor Alondra Nelson says that using DNA technology to find their African roots is becoming increasingly popular among Black people. In an interview with NPR, Nelson estimates that about 1 million have taken the test so far. The tests have also been popularized through Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates’ show Finding Your Roots, which traces the family history of famous Americans such as Oprah and Chris Rock.
Nelson told NPR that discovering their genetic roots was a way for Black people to fill in a missing part of their history.
“Part of what I learned in the course of doing the research is that I am an outlier in this regard. Many of the people I spoke to – whether they were 25 or 65, had lived their whole lives wanting to know where in Africa their ancestors were from,” said Nelson, author of The Social Life Of DNA.
Finding out what African ethnic group they are related to has a profound effect on Black people who take the test. Some break into tears, others have a new sense of identity now they know what ethnic group they come from. Actor Isaiah Washington used DNA technology to trace his maternal line back to the Mende people of Sierra Leone. He was so moved by the discovery that he is now a dual citizen of Sierra Leone and American and also contributed $1 million to a foundation that is building a school in the country.
Washington told The Los Angeles Times Africans in the Diaspora have the resources to help the motherland.
“If we can take our intellects and resources, and reverse the brain drain and help rebuild these countries, we can define our legacies,” he said.
Nelson told NPR that it was interesting that the Black community, which has traditionally been skeptical of medical technology, had now embraced DNA testing.
“How does a community that had really been the object of scientific and medical scrutiny for generations — with really negative outcomes — come to see science and technology as a positive thing, or something that can be used for self-knowledge and liberation? That was a question for me as well,” she said.
Apart from helping Black people gain a new sense of identity, Nelson said DNA testing could also be used as part of the argument for reparations, which has recently become a political issue. Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders was recently criticized by Atlantic writer Ta-Nehisi Coates after he said reparations would be unfeasible and divisive in Congress.
“It’s an interesting case in that it’s – to the best that I could discern – it’s the first time that genetic ancestry testing is introduced in a civil case. … It continues the long drumbeat for reparations in American society by generations of people – a drumbeat that comes again in 2014 with the publication of Ta-Nehisi Coates essay in The Atlantic,” Nelson said. “And because genetics is thought here to pose a new answer to a very old and longstanding question in black political culture.”
Nelson took the DNA test and found out she is descended from the Bamileke people of Cameroon. A few weeks later her mother met a Bamileke woman at church and they informally adopted her.
“And this past Thanksgiving she was at our table with her husband and her son, she’s part of our family now,” she said.