African American DNA Research Forum
Blacks Pin Hope on DNA to Fill Slavery's Gaps
July 25, 2005
Blacks Pin Hope on DNA to Fill Slavery's Gaps in Family Trees
By AMY HARMON
All her life, Rachel Fair has been teased by other black Americans about her light skin. "High yellow," they call her, a needling reference to the legacy of a slave owner who, she says, "went down to that cabin and had what he wanted."
So it was especially satisfying for Ms. Fair, 64, when a recent DNA test suggested that her mother's African ancestry traced nearly to the root of the human family tree, which originated there 150,000 years ago.
"More white is showing in the color, but underneath, I'm deepest Africa," said Ms. Fair, a retired parks supervisor in Cincinnati. "I tell my friends they're kind of Johnny-come-latelies on the DNA scale, so back up, back up."
Ms. Fair is one of thousands of African-Americans who have scraped cells from their inner cheeks and paid a growing group of laboratories to learn more about a family history once thought permanently obscured by slavery. They are seeking answers to questions about their family lineages in the antebellum South - whether black, white or Native American - and about distant forebears in Africa.
The DNA tests are fueling the biggest surge in African-American genealogy since Alex Haley's 1976 novel, "Roots," inspired a generation to try to trace their ancestors back to Africa. For those who have spent decades poring over plantation records that did not list slaves by surname and ship manifests that did not list where they came from, the idea that the key lies in their own bodies is a powerful one.
But the joy that often accompanies the answers from the tests is frequently tempered by the unexpected questions they raise. African-Americans say the tests can make the ugliness of slavery more palpable and leave the hunger for heritage unsatisfied. Some are unsure what to make of the new information about far-away kin, or how to account for genes that undermine a racial identity they have long internalized.
The interest in using genetics to construct a family tree comes despite warnings from scientists that the necessary tools to tell African-Americans what many want to know the most - precisely where in Africa their ancestors lived and what tribal group they belonged to - are still unreliable.
The most that blacks who use DNA tests can hope to learn now is that their genetic signature matches that of contemporary Africans from a given tribe or region from a DNA database that is far from complete. To assign an ancestral identity based on that match is highly suspect, scientists say; a group whose DNA has not been sampled may be a more precise match, or the person might match with several groups because of migration or tribal mixing.
Each test can also trace only one line of a person's many thousands of ancestors, making the results far more murky than the promise held out by some testing companies.
Still, the popularity of the DNA tests seems a testament to the unremitting craving for a story of origin. However flawed or scientifically questionable, the results provide the only clue many African-Americans have to the history and traditions that members of other American ethnic groups whose immigration was voluntary tend to take for granted.
"There's just something about knowing something after years of thinking it was impossible to know anything," said Melvin Collier, 32, a black student at Clark Atlanta University who recently learned that his DNA matches that of the Fulani people of Cameroon. "It's still pretty overwhelming."
Read the rest of the story in today's NY Times Science section . . .