This week I received an email with a link to an excellent article. It is written by a Kenyan writer and director of the Chinua Achebe Center for African Literature and Languages at Bard College, Binyavanga Wainaina. His satirical look at how not to write about Africa underscores part of the mission of African Ancestry: to transform the way that people view Africa. Those of you who prefer to read the article can click here.
How do you think about Africa? Take some time today to view it through a different lens!
Two weeks ago extraordinary attention was placed on the family history of our first lady, Michelle Obama. Her mixed ancestry was found to be a surprise by many Whites in America. Similarly, the European and East African ancestry of President Obama was seen as an exotic mix. For African Americans, mixed ancestry is no surprise; it is part of our history and can be uncovered in most families through traditional genealogy research as well as DNA testing.
The story of Melvina Shields, the great-great-great-grandmother of Michelle Obama who was enslaved and impregnated by a white man is a consistent theme heard in many narratives of African American family history. Noted sociologist, E. Franklin Frazier, explained in “Black Bourgeoisie” that the nearly 600,000 mulattoes in the U.S. in 1860 were mainly the result of the sexual association of white men and enslaved African women. We also see this reflected in the DNA of African Americans. When we test the paternally inherited Y chromosome DNA we find that 3 out of every 10 (30%) African American men have European Y chromosomes while less than 5% of the maternally inherited mtDNA is of European ancestry. This is called sex-bias gene flow and is largely the result of the behavior of many slaveholders and/or their male relatives.
The increased focus by the media on uncovering white ancestry in African Americans is interesting to some but is also disturbing to others, especially when these stories portray mixed ancestry as the reason for African American achievement. It is important to understand all of your family history. However, for most African Americans, including Michelle Obama, we cannot trace our family history using traditional methods beyond the Melvina Shields and others enslaved in the mid 1800s. This is because of the lack of adequate records on the enslaved and why DNA testing offered by African Ancestry is so important and exciting to African Americans.
The recent posthumous pardon of Tom Joyner’s great uncles is a great lesson. It teaches us the value of family and the value of persistence.
In 1915, Joyner’s great-uncles, Thomas and Meeks Griffin were executed in 1915 for a murder they didn’t commit. After they were electrocuted, his grandmother (their sister) was moved to Florida and was never told the story of her brothers. So, the Joyner family had always believed that their family history began in Florida. When researchers for the series African American Lives II told Tom about this part of his family’s history, he set out on a mission to have his great uncles pardoned.
While the pardon is something to be celebrated, I think the bigger lesson here is the importance of researching your family’s history. Our elders hold so much information about our family’s collective and individual experiences. Sometimes these experiences inform our personal experiences in ways that we don’t even realize.
One Thanksgiving, my father’s family sat around a large table discussing a plan to purchase the house next door to my grandparents’ house. The conversation turned to getting the mortgage and we began laughing about how no one in the family had “a job”. We were all self-employed. That lead to my grandmother sharing a story about the family work history. She and my grandfather had owned a barbershop and grocery store for most of their adult lives. Her father (my great-grandfather) built houses in Virginia, where she grew up. His father made the cinderblocks that were used to build the houses. Apparently, I come from a long line of entrepreneurs! When we traced one of my father’s lineages to the Hausa of Nigeria, I then learned that the Hausa women were the business people of the culture. Who knew that the line of entrepreneurship was that long!
My African Ancestry Experience has allowed me to meet some amazing people. Today has brought yet another one of them into my life. Sheila Kenner stopped by the office today to pick up a MatriClan Test Kit.
Sheila at the African Ancestry Headquarters
Her brother, who is the family genealogist, turns 50 on Saturday and finding their roots is her gift to him. She told a story of getting her sisters’ opinion of her gift idea. She wanted them to guess what it was, so she gave them the following clues:
“It is tangible, although you can’t kick, see or touch it. It will touch you and you can feel it deep down inside.”
“It’s not a trip, although it does involve a journey.”
“It involves technology although it doesn’t require upgrading. It can be built upon.”
“You may only use it once although its usefulness and value will serve over and over.”
“It is a mirror unto yourself that helps to you to see, project, and appreciate a bigger picture.”
All of us in the office were touched by the depth of her perceptions of our service. I had to share it with you. We’re excited to get her brother’s reaction to his gift and the entire family’s African Ancestry Experience. I’ll let you know what happens!
Oh, and by the way, her sisters are getting him a GPS. He’ll have two tools to help him navigate through life!
There is no peace in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Do you know that years of combat, sexual violence, and other humanitarian abuses are devastating this country?
Do you know that it is considered one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world?
Do you know that coltan, considered to be the “blood mineral” of the Congo, is believed to be financing this crisis? Coltan is used in the production of popular electronics like cell phones and DVD players.
Congo Week 2009 (www.congoweek.org) will take place October 18-24. Please take a few moments to visit their site and learn more about how you can educate yourself on the Congo and how you can make a difference.
Here are some other links that provide information about the current conflict. Check them out or find some others on your own. Then share what you’ve learned with a friend, family member, or colleague.
On Thursday, September 17th, African Ancestry was invited to a graduation ceremony in mid-town Manhattan. But not the kind you might expect.
This was the culmination of a project called Journey For Change: Empowering Youth Through Global Service fostered by The Angelrock Project and its Founder and Director, Malaak Compton-Rock. Aimed at providing a life-changing experience for at-risk youth, Journey For Change targeted 30 youths from Bushwick (an area of Brooklyn) between the ages of 12 – 15 with the hopes of empowering them to live a life of purpose and service.
Last summer, all 30 youth traveled 8,000 miles to South Africa to volunteer in shantytowns and help disadvantaged children, while learning to appreciate the advantages they had here in the US.
We were touched and moved by these kids and their journey when we first saw it on CNN’s Black in America 2, so you can imagine our excitement when Malaak Compton-Rock reached out to us several weeks ago. As many of you know, we tested her husband, comedian, Chris Rock on PBS’ African American Lives I, and she wanted to give that same gift to these kids at their graduation ceremony.
It was quite a magical experience. Of the 30 students, 24 have African ancestry, 5 have Native American ancestry, and one has European ancestry. Watch CNN’s recap of the evening and interview with one of the teens, Donovan.
Below are also some pictures from the evening:
The boys of Journey for Change
The girls of Journey for Change
At African Ancestry, we believe that every young person should know their roots. Any field that they can dream of pursuing was created in Africa: dance, medicine, music, law, math, science…the list goes on. I encourage you to engage a young person in your life in an exploration of the African origins of one of their favorite things or subjects.
Thank you Malaak for allowing us to be part of this journey for change. Visit The Angelrock Project at www.angelrockproject.com.