Black Americans Find Out Which African Tribe They Are From
January 5, 2019 6:39 AM   Subscribe

"We lost our names, we lost our languages, we lost the freedom to honor our ancestors, our families were torn apart ..."
posted by gt2 (14 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
This is really beautiful.

Just as a caution, I want to emphasize that genetics does not equal culture. Dr. Kim TallBear, who studies race science and genetics and is an enrolled Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate, spoke really eloquently about this on the most recent episode of Code Switch (transcript):
I grew up in the homeland of my ancestors, right? I cannot wrap my mind around what it would be like to be anybody else, whether to be a descendant of an immigrant or an immigrant or a descendant of an enslaved person. So I'm sure that it must be fascinating, and it might be healing. I can imagine that. What I would caution against is being such an American that one is de-animating or making less alive or less mobile the very peoples that you might want to connect with. And I think Americans of all colors are doing that. You know, when they're looking back to these other countries and making claims to belong to a people or identify with a people that they don't even know and haven't claimed them, those people have a right to claim you or not. And it may be hurtful, and it may be something you feel was stolen from you, but you alone don't get to make that decision. That is such an imperialistic attitude, and I think that's problematic.

Now that said, yeah, I can understand that finding out where your ancestors came from in some other part of the world might be healing. And I don't think that that's necessarily a bad thing to do, but from my vantage point as an indigenous person, I see a whole lot of American-U.S. imperialism going on in the way people are taking these DNA tests and running around the world making claims to an identity and a people that they don't even know.
As a White Jewish woman with pretty clear knowledge of my ancestry, I've never been in these folks' situation and I am not proscribing anything - I can understand how this brings a sense of closure and community. But I do think that there are a lot of problems with these ancestry/23&me/etc. companies conflating genetic markers with ancestry, conflating modern borders, cultures and countries with historical and ancestral populations, and further linking genetics and race in a really inaccurate and potentially dangerous way. I get worried about all these sort of puffy pieces that uncritically take genetic tests and use them to tell stories about who people are.
posted by ChuraChura at 8:10 AM on January 5, 2019 [24 favorites]

Heh. I learned about my Jewish ancestry the old-fashioned way, which is to say records and paperwork and deduction.

My great-grandparents immigrated here from Hungary. The first visit was by my great-grandfather and I think a couple of great-uncles. They were listed as "Jewish" in their travel documents. Then they went home and returned a few years later on a permanent basis, with all of their families. Suddenly everyone was "Catholic." The genetics did help to corroborate, though, since we learned this after my mother had testing done for cancer-associated genes and found out that she had a breast cancer gene that is particularly prevalent in Ashekenazic Jews, among other groups.

Mind you, we'd never previously had any idea. My mother had always been told that her grandparents were Catholic and had never had any Jewish upbringing. I was raised as an unquestioned and unquestioning white person and as agnostic/Christian, and I'm not about to claim any sort of minority status. It's just an interesting detail that explains where we got this particular dumb cancer gene from.
posted by Scattercat at 11:08 AM on January 5, 2019

Mom got me the Ancestry DNA test for Christmas, I got my results today.
The results directly align with the family story: I'm whiter than white flour, whiter than tapioca pudding, whiter than mayonnaise.
English, Scotch-Irish, Germanic with 3% highly exotic Swede, you know, for spice.
I gotta say I'm disappointed.
Even white bread has a crust.
posted by Floydd at 12:49 PM on January 5, 2019

I worry about more style privacy breaches. While I understand the wish to learn ancestry, especially in the face of cultural (and at times actual) genocide, I worry that informercials like this are ultimately pushing people to give up genetic data which will ultimately be used by police departments and insurance companies to further perpetuate structural racism.
You learn about your ancestry today. The company resells that data, and your grandchildren suffer higher premiums tomorrow.
posted by LeRoienJaune at 1:22 PM on January 5, 2019 [6 favorites]

Henry Louis Gates did this with his first ancestry research miniseries, African American Lives. He made it pretty clear in the special that he and his research team also did the paperwork/historical record research to cross-check and back things up, and to contextualize things for people; so when Mae Jemison turned out to have some Southeast Asian DNA, he could explain to her that according to historical record, there were some instances of Chinese people being brought as slave laborers to the US south, or working as sharecroppers just after the Civil War, so it wasn't totally out of nowhere. It was more of a "we know that the Mende people were in this part of the world at this time, and we know that these were the things they did that put them in contact with slavers" kind of thing than a "we know that the Mende people had these characteristics".

The only other thing I remember from that special offhand is that Oprah Winfrey had had the notion all her life that she was descended from the Zulu, and he had to break it to her that she wasn't; and then when he tried to tell her what group she was connected to, she actually stopped him for a few seconds because she was still adjusting to the "I'm not Zulu" thing.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:39 PM on January 5, 2019

Conclusion: "This is something you need, you know this isn't a novelty. This isn't just nice to know. This is a need to know, and now you're going to share. You just said, you have to share it."
What a weirdly uncritical advertisement wearing the clothes of a journalistic report. Did African Ancestry, Inc pay Buzzfeed anything more than the value of a few free tests in connection with the video? The terms and conditions on the website are remarkably uncreepy for a genetic ancestry company, with it seeming to be authentically an honest fee for a service rather than some kind of attempt to own everyone's genetic information to then seek predatory kinds of rent on it like basically all the other players in this space. The co-founder Gina Paige also did some pretty fantastic commercially focused science education throughout, but nothing so good or unbiased that she shouldn't have been paying to say it.

Its not like there aren't important questions about this commercial service that Buzzfeed's team could have explored instead of acting like the company's props, like how does the database of African genetic information that they say very little of substance about actually work? Is the database large and reliable enough to justify the pretty bold claims they make on a scientific level? Even assuming the scientific claims are sound, which is a large assumption, what exactly would a test like this actually say about identity? How tangible are the links being made even if they are scientifically valid? Each of the tribe descriptions that Paige provided the 'journalists' did come off kind of like Barnum statements in a cold reading exercise, given how tenuous and distant the non-genetic connections between African Ancestry's customers and the people in Africa they are being genetically linked to are and how non-genetic the things being discussed are, could the descriptions just be shuffled and have essentially the same value like is the case for Barnum statements in a horoscope? How do the people across Africa whose mitochondrial DNA is being compared to feel about these genetic connections? How weird must it be to get swabbed to help rich Americans answer these questions? Can a stolen sense of identity and belonging really be resurrected with a PCR machine? Can it be distilled into a corporate packet?
posted by Blasdelb at 5:08 PM on January 5, 2019 [4 favorites]

I wouldn't think so, but I'm not going to fuss if it makes people feel better.
posted by Scattercat at 5:36 PM on January 5, 2019

those people have a right to claim you or not

I disagree. It feels pretty ugly to say that if your ancestors threw out their ancestors, you get to say they can't even claim that heritage.
posted by the agents of KAOS at 6:04 PM on January 5, 2019 [3 favorites]

those people have a right to claim you or not

I think the point here is that Americans do not have the right to declare themselves of a certain ethnicity and then insert themselves into local politics, like the “Irish-Americans” who funded terrorist organizations during the Troubles in Northern Ireland. That is the worst kind of armchair imperialism!
posted by monotreme at 11:30 PM on January 5, 2019

Global warming is going to hit the lands these people are tracing their ancestors back to extremely hard, and when that happens, those Africans are going to need every friend and advocate in more temperate latitudes they can get, and then some -- and I think that essentially nullifies concerns about "a whole lot of American-U.S. imperialism going on in the way people are taking these DNA tests and running around the world making claims to an identity and a people that they don't even know."

And I wouldn't bring this up if Gina Paige hadn't alluded to it herself, but a decade and a half or so ago Tavis Smiley, in talking about an earlier wave of interest in their African ancestry on the part of American black people inspired by the Roots book and movie, mentioned that more than a few black men were surprised to find that their Y chromosome had come from a white male ancestor. Tavis said that one third of African-American men bore a Y chromosome contributed by a white man. I've looked some anyway, but I haven't found confirmation for that, though it seems plausible.
posted by jamjam at 11:31 PM on January 5, 2019

I think the point here is ...

I am pretty sure that if she wanted to make that point she could have, rather than making the much broader point that explicitly includes African Americans with enslaved ancestors and covers the entire concept of "making claims to belong to a people or identify with a people".
posted by the agents of KAOS at 2:00 PM on January 6, 2019 [1 favorite]

The loss of an oral tradition to tie people into their background may have to do with the physical break up of families sold in internal slavery. A lot of the black population in the deep south - Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana - were descended from slave communities sold "down the river" from Virginia and Maryland in the early 1800s (remember the song "Carry me back to old Virginny?". Those states began to fear having a black majority population, and after removing the Native American nations to Texas and Oklahoma the main source for slaves in the deep south came from the mid-Atlantic states where slaves were already creolized and spoke English as their main - often only - language. This era is the background to the story of in Solomon Northrup in the film Twelve Years a Slave.

While African origins are well preserved in the Caribbean (especially in Trinidad) and Latin America, many North American African communities did maintain their community identity for a long time. Certain nations were particularly known for resistance to slavery: Akan speaking Koromanti from Ghana were involved in many 18th century revolts and some states banned their import. During the Stono rebellion in South Carolina the slaves were led by Angolan and Congo descendants who were united by use of the Portuguese language and the Catholic religion.
posted by zaelic at 9:16 AM on January 7, 2019 [2 favorites]

A really interesting tangent/counterpoint/something; the NPR show On The Media did an hour this weekend about a site called "Africatown," the site of what had once been a community outside of Mobile Alabama which according to tradition had been established by the last known slaves to have been brought to the US. Right now, it's the site of a struggle over how to acknowledge/commemorate/develop/etc. the site - and not everyone is in favor of said development. (Link includes a transcript of the full episode.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:15 PM on January 7, 2019

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