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Gary Younge
New roots

Oprah is a Zulu. Never mind that she was born and raised in Mississippi and her great grandparents hailed from no further away than Georgia and North Carolina, Ms Winfrey, the queen of the televised confessional, is not just suggesting her lineage might stretch back thousands of years to a specific African tribe. She is asserting it as a definitive fact. "I always wondered what it would be like if it turned out I am a South African. I feel so at home here ... Do you know that I actually am one?" she told an audience of 3,200 in Johannesburg last year. "I went in search of my roots and had my DNA tested, and I am a Zulu."

This month in the US, Oprah has been joined by eight other African-American luminaries, including Quincy Jones and Whoopi Goldberg, in tracing their genealogy. Thirty years after Alex Haley famously traced the oral history passed down through his family back to Gambia to find his African ancestor, Kunta Kinte, who had been sold into slavery these celebrities will undertake a similar journey alongside Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr in a television series called African-American Lives. But unlike Haley's Roots, few have been able to turn to family historians in search of their genealogical narrative.

So when the stories stop and the paper trail of slaves bought and sold runs out, the participants have turned to genetic science to trace their kin. But while these journeys into the past are essentially personal, they raise broader issues about racial authenticity and the genetic basis for racial categorisations. Furthermore, it addresses the fundamental issue of whether any of us can, ultimately, really say where we come from - and what use it would do us even if we could.

Over the past few years laboratories have begun to amass a database of DNA samples from around the world, including parts of West Africa, the area from which most slaves were caught, sold and shipped to the Americas.

The technology aims either to trace a person's lineage through their genes or compile a statistical breakdown, by geographical region, of their genetic makeup. Alondra Nelson, an assistant professor of sociology and African-American studies at Yale, says results "could stretch from several thousand years to tens of thousands of years in a person's ancestry".

Mark Shriver, an assistant professor of anthropology and genetics at Penn State university, conducts geographical genetic tests on his students among others. He describes himself as white but his own tests reveal that his DNA is 86% white but also 11% west African and 3% indigenous American. "For most people it is consistent with what they thought," he says. "How the west African DNA got into my family line was never explained to me."

Another method of testing follows the genes back through gender lines. One, the patrilineal, follows the Y chromosome through your father, your father's father, your father's father's father and so on. The other, the mitochondrial, follows DNA through your maternal line - or your mother's mother, your mother's mother's mother and so on.

"It's basically a matchmaking game," Megan Smolenyak, an expert in family history research, told the New York Daily News. "I like to warn folks: be sure you can deal with the results ... Some people don't like what they find."

The science, now commercially available, has become something of a boom industry. Growing numbers of relatively wealthy African-Americans have been buying up test kits that can cost up to $350 (£200) a throw.

While other Americans could travel to towns in Ireland, Italy or Germany in search of genealogical sustenance, slavery deprived African-Americans of a clear and precise geographical bond with their own ancestry. As Gates puts it: "There is no Ellis Island for the descendants of the slave trade." Moreover, since slave-owners changed people's names, regularly split up families and banned reading and writing, the usual methods of keeping family histories have not been available to African-Americans until relatively recently.

This new science, then, seemed to offer a means of telling a story that had been denied and hidden. Even as DNA evidence was freeing many - mostly black - prisoners from death row it was also unlocking historical secrets. For example, historians had insisted for 150 years that America's third president, Thomas Jefferson, could not have fathered children by his slave mistress Sally Hemmings. Many African-Americans claimed otherwise, however, and in 1998 scientists followed the Y chromosome DNA in Jefferson's family line to establish a definitive link with the Hemmings family. Almost 200 years after Jefferson had cryptically parried accusations of the affair with the words "the man who fears no truth has nothing to fear from lies", science had exposed the facts that a mixture of prejudice and politics had kept hidden.

In reality, however, the truths this science reveals are no less selective than those you will hear from a politician. Two years ago I swabbed my cheek with something that felt like a cotton bud and sent it off to a Washington-based organisation called African Ancestry. Several weeks later it sent me a letter telling me that the "Y chromosome DNA sequence that we determined from your sample matches with the Hausa people in Nigeria ... This result means that you have inherited through your father a segment of DNA that was passed on consistently from father to son to you. This segment of DNA is presently found in Africa in Nigeria."

They also sent me a map showing me where Nigeria is and a "certificate of ancestry" declaring that I "share paternal genetic ancestry with the Hausa people in Nigeria". It went on,"You can display it with pride among other important family documents."

Elsewhere in the letter, however, came information that would seem to minimise the entire enterprise if not negate it altogether. "The Y chromosome may represent less than 1% of your entire genetic makeup" it said. That is to say that I had possibly been awarded an ancestry courtesy of a fraction of my DNA.

Herein lies one of the central problems with tracing ones roots through DNA. Science can only tell you so much. Stop the genealogical wheel at an inconvenient moment and some of the world's greatest black icons could be rendered not African, but European. Muhammad Ali's great grandfather was Irish; Bob Marley's father was British. According to Shriver, Gates - the most prominent black academic in the country - has DNA that is 50% European and 50% West African. Both his matrilineal and paternal lines came back to Europe.

"I've spoken with African Americans who have tried four or five different genetic genealogy companies because they weren't satisfied with the results," says Nelson. "They received different results each time and kept going until they got a result they were happy with."

"There are some people who are black who may have only 10% African ancestry," says Shriver. "It helps create an understanding that race is an illusion and that there isn't any real difference between races. They show that we're all mixes."

Critics of Shriver's work say he is actually achieving the opposite - elevating race from a social construct - a difference created to justify racism - into something that appears both real and even calculable. Paul Gilroy, the Anthony Giddens sociology professor at the London School of Economics, says: "To make all these claims is to realign science with the racial categorisations of the 18th century."

Shriver defends his work. "That is a potential problem," he admits. "The labels are arbitrary. It's a model. We have taken these four categories that mean something for New World people. But I don't respect people who don't want to explore this issue and see what happens. There's quite a lot of hubris out there when it comes to genomic work and ethics."

Neither the mixing nor the denial is exclusive to descendants of former slaves or issues of race. Everyone could claim African ancestry given that civilisation is deemed to have started there. Although Mediterranean Europeans define themselves as white, they share a long heritage with North Africans.

"Everybody is mixed, but not everybody counts as mixed," says Gilroy. "These things are interesting but the truth is that no one can say with any certainty where they come from."

Like Nelson, Gilroy does not deny the need for these tests. "Some people say knowing made them feel complete," she says. She tells of one African-American woman whose match took her to an area of Sierra Leone where many of the women were accomplished potters. This woman came from a family of skilled potters. "I don't know how you like those two facts," says Nelson. "But I know it was very meaningful for her."

Which brings us back to Oprah. Last week she gave author James Frey a dressing down on her couch for the memoir he wrote and she helped promote that turned out to owe far more to fiction than fact. Angry, and at times tearful, Oprah asked the author of A Million Little Pieces to explain why he felt "the need to lie". "It is difficult for me to talk to you because I really feel duped," she said. "But more importantly I feel that you betrayed millions of readers." Whatever Oprah's belief about her ancestry, her assertion that she is Zulu is no less misleading.

According to most historical accounts, the Zulu nation was consolidated only after the departure of slaves from West Africa to the Americas. Moreover, there is little in the way of genetic lineage that comes close to matching a particular linguistic group such as the Zulu nation. When Oprah had her DNA tested for the programme, the results suggested her most likely match was from the Kpelles tribe of Liberia. Indeed she was told that she could not have come from South Africa. None of this is likely to stop her claiming the Zulus as her kith and kin. "I'm crazy about the South African accent," she said. "I wish I had been born here."

Perhaps her new-found relations, and those of her fellow celebrities say less about the power of science than something both far more elusive and compelling - the desire for identity.

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