Uncovering the roots: How African Americans are tracing their lineage using DNA

By Megan Sayles, AFRO Business Writer,
Report for America Corps Member,
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Founded in 2003 by Dr. Rick Kittles and Gina Paige, African Ancestry is the largest database of African maternal and paternal lineages across the world. With over 30,000 indigenous African DNA samples spanning 40 different countries, the company has helped more than one million people uncover their identity by determining the specific countries and ethnic groups they’ve descended from. 

According to Paige, African Ancestry was a pioneer in the DNA testing industry. At the time of its establishment, there were few companies that existed like it, and none were able to provide any information to assist Black people in discovering their ancestry. 

After the company’s formation, Paige finally had the opportunity to trace her ancestry back to various ethnic groups across Nigeria, Liberia, Portugal and Angola. 

For African Americans, tracking down ancestors can be an arduous task. Slave ships began capturing and exporting them to foreign countries in the 1600s, and before 1870, African Americans were not even included in the U.S. census. 

While some individuals can retrieve oral history from living family members or seek out marriage and birth records and obituaries to find their forebears, the paper trail inevitably ends. 

Today, people can simply swab their cheeks, wait for results and discover the places, cultures, traditions and belief systems they’ve descended from. But, Paige said there is still fear and hesitancy among African Americans receiving DNA testing because of the problematic history between them and the U.S. medical system. 

Unlike 23andMe and AncestryDNA, African Ancestry has never sold or shared any of its customers’ genetic information. 

“Once a result is determined, our lab destroys the DNA by incineration, so you don’t have to worry about what’s going to happen to your DNA,” said Paige. “We’ve eliminated those concerns because we understand the value of the information, and we don’t want that fear to stand in between you and filling the void that has existed for 400 years.” 

Unearthing ancestral roots can close divides that exist between Africans and African Americans, and it can also help to stop the perpetuation of colorism and negative stereotypes and open the door for more culturally-relevant education in schools, according to Paige. 

Maryland native NSangou Njikam, an actor and playwright whose work centers on African storytelling and performance traditions, traced his maternal ancestry through African Ancestry back in 2009. 

Before taking the test, he only possessed a small amount of information about where his family lived before coming to the Baltimore area, and his knowledge of his family’s history stopped in the states. 

Njikam had heard about African Ancestry in 2004 while watching PBS’ series, “African American-Lives,” which recounted the experience of famous African Americans tracing their genealogy. 

When his friend and business partner Nicole Salter partnered with African Ancestry to start a middle school program that helped youth learn about their ancestors and West African performance traditions, Njikam finally decided to take the test. 

“My maternal lineage leads back to the Tikar people living in Cameroon today, and since then, I’ve been fortunate to trace other lineages in my family and find other African lineages, but that was the one that was like, ‘Whoa, there’s a specific people and a specific country, this is the best thing ever,’” said Njikam. 

He immediately shared the results with his parents and older brother, but they did not initially understand his excitement and the importance of the discovery. 

Njikam decided to write a play called “Redefinition” that was based on his genealogy experience to motivate his family and ease some of the fears and doubts other African Americans have about DNA testing. 

He also traveled to Cameroon to meet the Tikar people and was named by the leader of the Bamoun Kingdom and given a birth certificate. 

“If we start going toward the past, we will be able to make a better future,” said Njikam. “It’s our ancestral imperative to know where we’re from, and if we don’t, then we may be inviting more challenges, but if we do, we’ll be inviting more victory, more success and ultimately, a better future for ourselves, our people and future generations.”

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