Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=150565
Story Retrieval Date: 5/25/2013 8:38:30 PM CST
For many black Chicagoans, the DNA test restores the missing link to Africa.
“We, as African Americans, struggle to understand our identity,” said the Rev. Albert Sampson. Sampson is the senior pastor of Fernwood United Methodist Church in Roseland. For Sampson, who the only member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference ordained by Martin Luther King Jr., identity is an important aspect in his personal life.
He said he does not know his father and had only met his mother three times. He said his mother lived in a mental institution in Massachusetts, where she was sexually assaulted.
When he received the results of his DNA tests from the African Ancestry science company in 2004 and 2006, he said it gave him strength.
“The results helped me with my cultural, spiritual and psychological identity,” Sampson said.
The results showed that his paternal line shares ancestry with the Igbo ethnic group in Nigeria and his maternal line connects with the Temne people of Sierra Leone. When Sampson visited Sierra Leone in 2005, he spoke with village elders who gave him the name, Pa Sorie Kamara.
Sampson said ‘kamara’ means ‘house’ and ‘sorie’ means ‘they snatached you from us and now we’re snatching you back.”
“Our identity and history is being threaded again with the use of science,“ he said.
But there are many skeptics. Marjorie Sholes, former president of the California African-American Genealogical Society has not taken the DNA Africa link test. She says the database of the genetic information of indigenous Africans is not large enough.
“The DNA hype has gone far among African-Americans,” she said.
Many African-Americans are using technology to aid their search for identity. While there are many ways to use DNA, some black Americans are using it to supplement genealogical research to find where their roots lie in Africa.
Within the past 10 years, more than 20 DNA testing companies have developed. African Ancestry has become the leading company for clients to find a genetic link to Africa. DNA lab companies can provide genetic information from the paternal line by testing the y-chromosome and the maternal line with the mitochondrial DNA.
The Washington, D.C.-based company was featured in the 2006 PBS documentary, “African American Lives.” More than 1 million viewers watched the program, which featured celebrities including Oprah Winfrey and Chris Tucker.
African Ancestry was co-founded by a Chicago-based geneticist, Dr. Rick Kittles, and Gina Paige. It offers DNA tracing to determine a link to a present-day African country.
“We have no other way of finding out where in Africa we come from, so what we provide answers a lot of questions,” said Paige. “African-Americans were not even recorded as people, so using DNA helps people with varying ancestry interests. It helps genealogists connect the gap to Africa.”
She said among the highest number of requests are those from Chicago.
Famous black Americans like actress Kimberly Elise and Judge Glenda Hatchett tested their DNA through African Ancestry. But internationally-renowned, Chicago-based genealogist Tony Burroughs said the test is flawed and people should be aware of the limitations.
“Just because celebrities are doing the test, doesn’t mean it’s real,” Burroughs said.
The company claims to have the largest database of its kind. It compares a client’s DNA with its database of more than 20,000 sequences representing more than 80 indigenous ethnic groups in Africa.
Kittles and Burroughs talked about their differing views on DNA testing in separate interviews. Here are their responses to questions about using DNA to trace a genetic link to Africa.
Question: Why are some genealogists skeptical about DNA testing to find genetic links to Africa?
Kittles: Most of the arguments and skepticism is due to a misunderstanding or a naïveté about the science. That’s the challenge for people who do this, like myself. We have to be able to explain the science to the lay in a fashion that they can understand.
Burroughs: When you do any genealogy, African-Americans or European-Americans or whatever, genealogy is based on the evidence. So that evidence can be a lot of different kinds of things. So each and every one of those pieces of evidence that you collect has to be weighed and judged if it is accurate or not, truthful or not, or valid or not. So any evidence that you look at can have strengths and weaknesses. So no one piece of evidence necessarily has a greater weight than any other evidence. You do your genealogy based on the evidence.
Question: What are some of the limitations in using DNA for genealogy?
Burroughs: Every piece of evidence has its limitations. One of the limitations in using y-chromosome DNA tests is that you have to have a direct male line. The research that I’ve had the most success on is not my y-chromosome male line, meaning my paternal ancestors.
Kittles: It’s just one lineage that’s tested at a time for the service we provide. So we have thousands of lineages that make up our genome, our DNA. The test only offers information on one of those lineages. You can get multiple tests and test multiple people in your family. Some people have had, like 12 lineages tested in their family. So one of the limitations is that it doesn’t tell you everything. You have to sort of do further testing. In fact, sometimes, some of the traditional genealogy sometimes has to be done too.
Question: Would you recommend that someone who is trying to trace their ancestry to begin by testing their DNA or by conducting traditional genealogical research?
Burroughs: First of all, people that have reputable DNA labs tell you that you should do your genealogy first, you should not do your DNA first. You should do your genealogy and you should take the test to be in sync with your genealogy. Genealogy is tracing your ancestry backward into time, one generation at a time, showing linkages between each generation. That’s genealogy research. When you take a DNA test and that DNA test tells you something, that’s not genealogy. Those results can sometimes be used within your genealogy research to sometimes prove certain things or sometimes disprove certain things.
Kittles: It really depends on the question that you’re asking. In some cases, it may be very important to do the genealogy first. In other situations, the genealogy might be irrelevant. So it really depends on the question. In some cases, it might be important to do the DNA test first and use that information to explore similar family lineages. The DNA testing can be a good starting point.
Question: Why do you think so many African-Americans are excited about the possibility of finding a genetic link to people in Africa?
Kittles: The experiences that African-Americans have had in America make it difficult for us to trace our ancestry. Our history has been robbed. Other people in this country have not had this history to deal with. I think that’s part of why there is such a high interest among African-Americans to do the DNA testing.
Burroughs: We have been cut off from our African roots and I believe there’s a natural yearning to try to know who you are and where you came from. And so we know that we do not know our African ancestors, we do not know which ethnic groups or tribes we came from. That’s one of the reasons people do genealogy. Genealogy is the most popular hobby in America. Anybody doing genealogy is doing it because they want to know where they came from, they want to know who their ancestors are -- whether black or white or Asian.
Now, with the Africa thing, when DNA came along, people thought this is a quick fix. That all I have to do is pay $350 and they can tell me where I came from in Africa. They don’t have a clue that it ain’t that simple. But I think it’s natural for African-Americans to want to know that information. Because it’s been cut off from us, our history has been destroyed, it’s been maligned, it has been distorted.
Question: Where did the samples of the African Ancestry company come from?
Burroughs: They used some DNA samples that they did not take -- that other labs have done that they have access to. So they have not collected all the DNA that’s in the databases that they use. Some of them are -- I don’t know if you’d call it a public domain database -- but they have results that other scientists have access to.
Kittles: The samples came from either preliminary research that I was doing or from publications of genetic studies in Africa or from collaborations with other scientists. I’ve worked with anthropologists, historians and geneticists from all over the world. A lot of European universities, for instance in Italy and in Portugal, have done a lot of work in central and west Africa. So I have collaborations with many of them or I have access to many of their publications.
There’s what used to be called Genbank, a genetic database where when you publish research, you can deposit the sequence of information into this database that you can access online. I don’t think it’s around anymore. Back in 2002, I went through Genbank and pulled out all the African sequences and deposited them into our database. So, that was a small fraction of our database and the rest was supplemented by my own primary research.
Question: Are the samples from the African Ancestry company really from indigenous Africans?
Burroughs: The DNA that finds genetic links with people in Africa links with people who are in Africa today, not the people who lived in Africa 400 years ago when our ancestors came to America. So that DNA does not account for the historical migrations within the African continent. There’s been a lot of migration all around the world, let alone just in Africa.
Let’s take someone that was born in Chicago and someone takes DNA from them and tells them that you’re DNA says you’re from Chicago. So that person might have been born in Chicago, whereas their parents could have been born in Mississippi and their grandparents could have been born in Georgia and their great- grandparents could have been born in Virginia, just over a 100-year period. So taking the DNA of that person in Chicago, in many cases would have absolutely nothing to do with where their ancestors are from.
Same thing as taking DNA from people in Africa. If you cannot account for the historical migrations within the African continent, then that test has nothing to do with your genealogy. All they’re doing is saying you’re connected with someone who lives in Africa today. For that reason alone, it has nothing to do with genealogy.
Kittles: So when we did the research and collected the data from the different Africa groups, we had a questionnaire where the person volunteering their sample answered the question about their mother’s ancestry and their father’s ancestry and their grandparents. So it had to go back generations. Whatever they claimed, say they’re Yoruba, they had to be Yoruba on both sides. So that’s how we pulled them into the database.
Question: How does the Africa link test that your company offers account for the historical migrations on the African continent? There was so much mixing among African ethnic groups. What if someone’s mitochondrial DNA results show genetic links to 12 ethnic groups in Africa?
Kittles: We tell the people that. Some of these lineages are quite common across many groups, across many geographic regions in Africa. And those are the ones that are quite old. The older the lineage, the more common it is in Africa. And so, for the old ones, we say, “this is a very old lineage and it’s found throughout.”
If you remember “African American Lives” on PBS where we tested the black woman astronaut, Mae Jamison, we found that she had a very old and common lineage. We couldn’t tell her exactly where, because that lineage was found throughout west and central Africa. But others have very rare lineages. Oprah Winfrey had one of the most recent, rare lineages. I mean, it was quite dramatic.
Think about your last name. The common last name, you can open any phone book and find several with that last name. Just because you find someone with the same last name doesn’t mean they’re related to you, OK? But if you have a rare last name and you find somebody, it’s more likely that you are related.
Question: Will you ever be interested in doing the DNA testing for the Africa link yourself?
Burroughs: Whenever they can get it to the point where that works. Right now, it doesn’t work. If they ever get it to the point it works, which I think there is a possibility, sure I would definitely be interested. There are some scientists right now that are trying to make it work. There are some scientists that understand that right now it doesn’t work. There are some limitations and they’re trying to figure out how to make it work. The main company that is telling people where they came from [in Africa] has not proven that it even works. Some scientists have proven that it doesn’t work. So why would I spend my money on something that doesn’t work?
Question: DNA testing for the Africa link is encouraging African-Americans to go back to Africa. They’re setting up non-profit groups, rallying for political and social change and adopting African names. Is this exciting?
Burroughs: I think if they set up a foundation, that’s great. But I’ve heard of people going to Africa based on some DNA test and talking to Africans who probably aren’t even their relatives. I mean, that’s a disservice. So I’m not excited about that.
I read an article in one of the top African-American magazines about a lady who went to see her relatives, based off some faulty research. I’m not excited about that. Because the person didn’t know how to do the proper genealogy, because they didn’t take the time to read a book on genealogy and they didn’t take the time to figure out how genealogy is done. They just accepted something because a relative said it and the relative has very faulty research. That’s not exciting at all. That’s sad. And it makes me angry. People don’t have to do that.
It’s great that people do that [go back to Africa to meet relatives], if it’s based on good science. Sure it’s great. But when people get all excited about something that is based upon a false premise, that’s a disservice. … I don’t know if a lot of people really understand that.
Kittles: Yes, it is. This is exactly what I wanted to achieve. I wanted African-Americans to connect more to Africa. I wanted them to see themselves in Africa and recognize that these are people who are related to us and know that their issues are our issues and I wanted African-Americans to be comfortable lobbying and want to know more about the history and the politics and the current situation in Africa. I wanted to see people, let’s say, like Isaiah Washington, who goes back to Sierra Leone and builds a school and a hospital and has lobbied there and here for the culture. It’s exciting and important.