Tomorrow is the 34th anniversary of the finale of Roots, the 12-hour miniseries based on Alex Haley’s Pulitzer-prize winning book of the same name. According to the Museum of Broadcast Communications in Chicago, Roots “scored higher ratings than any previous entertainment program in history,” with millions of U.S. households captivated by Haley’s story of the African-American experience.
I can remember being small, sitting in front of the television with my family as they tuned in to the historic program. At 1 1/2 years old, I was too young to comprehend its significance, but as kids often imitate what they see, I recall going down to the basement of our Brooklyn home to get my blue, plastic toy penguin. I wanted to re-create a scene that felt magical to me—the only one that stayed with me for years before I revisited the miniseries with an adult perspective. I held that toy above my head, just as Kunta Kinte held his infant Kizzy to the sky, and proclaimed, “Blue baby, blue.” In toddler-speak, that meant, “Behold, the only thing greater than yourself.” But naturally, eloquence escaped me at the time.
I wasn’t the only individual touched by Roots. It helped to awaken a consciousness in many black people, who began to want even more knowledge about their ties to the African continent. However, one’s specific African origins were hard to pinpoint, due to the harsh realities of slavery and the erasure of culture and heritage of the enslaved Africans who came against their will to new lands.
Today, that mystery is no more. Many companies provide DNA testing kits, which allow an individual to match his or her genetic makeup against databases of various races and ethnicities. One such company, African Ancestry was featured in 2006 on PBS’ African American Lives, hosted by Henry Louis Gates Jr. (African American Lives 2 aired in 2008).
Using this company’s services, cheek swabs from my father gave the clues to the DNA of the paternal line from which he descends. (A brother, uncle, or male cousin would’ve provided the same results).
In about six weeks, African Ancestry sent a package with in-depth data on various ethnic groups of Africa, a certificate, etc. The enclosed letter announced:
It is with pleasure that I report that our PatriClanTM analysis successfully identified your paternal genetic ancestry. The Y chromosome DNA that we determined from your sample shares ancestry with people living in two countries today: the Igbo people in Nigeria and the Mbundu people in Angola. While these groups may differ socially and culturally, there are people within them who share a common genetic ancestry.
Generations back in Jamaica, family lore spoke of an Ashanti princess in our lineage, but the DNA results did not mention Ghana. It doesn’t mean that we should rule out that oral tradition, however. I wonder if an Ashanti ancestry could’ve possibly been reflected in a matrilineal analysis.
For my own maternal line, my aunt sent in her cheek swabs to African Ancestry, and the results were the Kru people of Liberia, and the Mende people of Sierra Leone.
It is a wonderful thing to have this knowledge now. For those of you curious about other parts of your genetic makeup, here are some ideas you could explore:
Ancestry.com DNA Test: http://dna.ancestry.com/buyKitGoals.aspx
DNA Tribes Genetic Ancestry Analysis: http://www.dnatribes.com/
“My fondest hope is that Roots may start black, white, brown, red, and yellow people digging back for their own roots,” Haley said in an interview printed in the January 1977 issue of Playboy. Haley, who died in 1992, would be thrilled that his dream has been realized.