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What it Means to Reclaim My African Ancestry this Black History Month

Alicia Lue | February 7, 2022

There is a lyric in Bob Marley’s Buffalo Soldier that used to leave me sick with longing: if you know your history, then you would know where you’re coming from. But where did I come from? It is a question that most Black people are unable to answer. Of course, through no fault of our own. Like so many of us, I had long yearned to know more about my Black ancestry. Where did my Black bloodline originate? My Jamaican roots pointed to West Africa, but which country in West Africa? So many unanswered questions.

Last spring, I finally decided to do did an ancestry DNA test, albeit with great trepidation. I had seen it advertised countless times, white participants beaming as they traced their lineages over tens of generations and hundreds of years. I knew those results would look very different for me, a mixed-race woman with three grandparents being direct descendants of African slaves. I also had concerns about literally handing over my DNA to a corporation. After seeing a growing trend of Black participants on Youtube, I decided the payoff was worth the risk. 

The truth is, connection to one’s ancestry is an integral part of self-realization. And tracing one’s genealogy has been linked to an improved sense of identity and purpose – issues that many Black people tend to grapple with. Issues that I was grappling with. Having grown up in Jamaica with my paternal grandmother who was only a few generations removed from slavery meant I had to unlearn a great deal. About the ideas presented to me around parenting, and about how to navigate life in general. But I knew that unlearning was only part of my journey of affirming myself as the parent and woman I wanted to be. It was as, perhaps even more important to learn about and connect to my ancestry before those precious lines were disconnected. 

When I finally received the results  of my test, I was moved to tears. For reasons that I didn’t quite understand. Or perhaps, for reasons that I did. The interruption of our trajectory as a people has meant that we’ve been so long cut off from that information. That sacred link to who we were before. But with technological advances, we can now start to reclaim those missing pieces of our history.  

It is inexplicably fulfilling to say with certainty that my African roots lay primarily in Nigeria. 35% to be exact. The rest of my Black ancestry traces back to Cameroon, Congo, Ivory Coast Ghana, Benin and Togo. Gaining access to that information was an emotional and empowering experience. And one that I would encourage every Black person to explore.

African Ancestry, an ancestry tracing service created to cater specifically to people of African descent, is filling a crucial gap. The service goes beyond ethic breakdowns to the tribal level. Nicole Taylor, a spokesperson for the service tells me “African Ancestry is the only service that connects people of African descent to their countries of origin and tribes from 500 to 2000 years ago – well before the TransAtlantic Slave Trade. She says, “we use single lineage testing on one branch of a family tree (maternal or paternal) to accurately and reliably determine African ancestry. Our database of more than 30,000 indigenous African lineages is used to analyze and pinpoint a present-day country in Africa that is a match to the tester’s DNA.”

Of course, providing personal data such as DNA which is necessary for genealogical tracing can be a barrier to getting the test done. But unlike other ancestry tracing services, African Ancestry destroys every sample after use. 

Taylor says the value of doing an ancestry test is priceless. “For every other race of people, ancestry testing is a novelty. A ‘nice to know.’ For Black people, it’s a necessity. As the original victims of identity theft, people of African descent across the diaspora can’t point to a homeland on any map before the Slave trade. In fact, many people believe our history started with slavery. Pinpointing where we’re from in Africa and our original tribes through AfricanAncestry.com, is transformative, healing and empowering.”

I couldn’t agree more. Knowing my Black history has not only helped me to define and feel empowered in my sense of identity, but it has also fueled my desire for my own children to feel connected to their history. Not as descendants of African slaves. But heirs of the kingdom before.

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