An AfriGeneas Library Document. May not be reproduced without permission. 


Family DNA

 By Don Ogbewii Scott

Sometimes, in the quiet of the early morning or late evening, I can imagine hearing the voice of my deceased paternal great uncle, whom my three brothers and I affectionately called Uncle Mack. I can hear him humming in our southeast Washington, D.C. apartment some down-home Abbeville, South Carolina folk tune with deep African tones of spirituality that seemed to range from a certain pain, fear and foreboding to gratitude, happiness and even joyous redemption.

Following DNA evaluation, Scott learned of his roots to the Akan of Ghana, as well as to the Bini and Hausa of Nigeria. 

Although my four brothers and I sometimes asked our parents why our live-in babysitter during the 1960s had to make such utterances, over the years I’ve learned that Uncle Mack was passing us a very profound message from the past. I’m sure that it was also his talk of life in Abbeville, the heart of the Civil War’s Confederacy, where family dealt with segregation, rapes and even lynching, including one ancestor whose body parts were reportedly thrown in the Savannah River after he was “punished” for “speaking out too much,” as my dad once put it.

And as the 1970s approached and I entered Cheyney University (the oldest black institution of higher learning in the country originally known as the Institute for Colored Youth in Philadelphia) where I heard Alex Haley, the famed author of “Roots,” give a remarkable speech in 1976 about finding his African Gambian ancestors, the curiosity about my past with millions of other Americans soared. Yet, via the legacy of slavery cutting off the African traditions and cultures of enslaved Africans, the hunger to grasp or learn anything about my specific African ancestry became feverish. Not knowing was very painful in a society that downplayed blackness and uplifted whiteness. 

Today, through painstaking genealogical research and the miracle of DNA analysis via Howard University and National Geographic, the voice of my Great Uncle Emanuel Sibert, born March 22, 1901, emanates ever stronger – echoing to ancient Africa and forward through the 1960s in Washington, D.C. where my father studied medicine at Howard University through to the family returning to the Philadelphia, Pa. area where Uncle Mack ultimately died in Feb. 1974.

California Assemblyman Mervyn Dymally (left) stands with Gina Paige of African Ancestry, Inc. and learns that his maternal DNA extends to Sierra Leone. Photo Credit: Dymally's official web site.

Over the past year, my brothers and I, via the evaluation of our parents’ DNA, as well as my twin brother’s genes and mine, have gathered data that have identified the African tribal groups of three family lines – including Uncle Mack’s Nigerian, Hausa ethnic group – and the ancestral migration routes of our African ancestors more than 50,000 years ago into the Sudan and Egypt areas. One of my distant paternal ancestors, according to National Geographic, moved out of Africa through the so-called Middle East and Mediterranean areas with the original gene marker that all men carry today worldwide. Furthermore, according to DNA evaluations conducted by African Ancestry, Inc. ( with links to Howard University, my mother’s maternal ancestors were from the Akan of Ghana, likely of the mighty Ashanti; meanwhile, my father’s paternal ancestors hailed from the Bini of Nigeria with possible ties to the great ancient city of Benin. This joyous news has magnified the need for black Americans to vigorously pursue their roots through genealogy research and DNA analysis. Such data is important for black self-identity, as well as economic, social and spiritual empowerment in America and Africa.

For many African Americans, such testing “definitely” provides “a greater sense of pride,” says Gina Paige, president of African Ancestry, Inc., based at Howard University and the primary evaluator of my family’s DNA to determine tribal origins. “I don’t think people walk around with a sense of lacking. [The testing] provides a sense of fulfillment,” adding that some blacks change their names, or even give their newborns African names, depending on their tribal identities. Others research furiously the traditions and customs of their ancestors, integrating them in the celebration of holidays such as Kwanza. The impact has been revolutionary. 

Yet, that sense of fulfillment must be expanded, especially to those who have been labeled the hip-hop generation. Despite more than a few rap artists being positive and even writing lyrics that probe black history, there’s overwhelming emphasis on physical and mental violence laced with promiscuity, sexism and outright greed as well as stupidity – much of this minstrel and slap-happy nonsense supported by corporate and entertainment pimps (white and black).

Washington Wizzards center Etan Thomas' roots are from Sierra Leone, according to DNA tests. Photo Credit:

As I discussed with Temple University professor, Dr. Molefi Kete Asante, the originator of the “Afrocentric” concept, at a museum gathering commemorating a Civil War-era training facility (Camp William Penn) for almost 11,000 black federal soldiers just outside of northwest Philadelphia, the accomplishments of those men and their African ancestors must be remembered. Such black-history knowledge, asserted Asante (author of dozens of books and hundreds of articles about African and African-American culture and founder of the Pan African Cultural Center at Tafo, Ghana), whose DNA has been evaluated to determine his African ancestry, is vital to inspiring future generations. Members of the 3rd United States Colored Troops Infantry re-enactors, portraying the first regiment to be trained at Camp William Penn in the summer of 1863, agree and have traced their ancestors back to the facility where the likes of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and Quaker abolitionist Lucretia Mott spoke. They often take their messages to the youngsters in the Philly area.

In fact, in Philadelphia, where the public school system is instituting a comprehensive black history curriculum, such expanded DNA analysis programs would do wonders, an option that Paige of African Ancestry, Inc. is exploring. Imagine children learning about the wonders of their specific African ancestry, and the fantastic accomplishments of ancient Egypt, Timbuktu and other long-forgotten kingdoms that made wonderful contributions to the world. Such initiatives have been thoroughly vetted at the likes of the annual Cheikh Anta Diop International Conference held in Philadelphia and founded by Dr. Asante, a program named for the trailblazing and legendary Senegalese scholar who proved the greatness of ancient African cultures via unparalleled research. 

Funding for such expanded initiatives could even come from our so-called comedians (including the very outspoken Bill Cosby), Hollywood actors and “superstar” athletes. Yet, a network of black churches interested in organizing could be excellent primary support. 

And when Dr. Dorothy I. Height, chair of the National Council of Negro Women, Inc., and other prominent blacks received results of their DNA analyses via African Ancestry, Inc. during the group’s Black Family Reunion Celebration on Sept. 9th and 10th 2006, this should have inspired many black families to gather funds to learn of their family roots. The likes of celebrities Oprah Winfrey, Whoopi Goldberg and Quincy Jones have added fuel and by publicizing their DNA roots via African Ancestry, Inc. during February’s PBS special “African American Lives,” hosted by Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates.

Dorothy Height recently learned that she has DNA roots to Sierra Leone. Photo Credit: Northrup Grumman

DNA analysis, despite some critics, could also add more steam to the growing reparations movement for economic and other benefits due to the horrible “wounds” inflicted by slavery. “One of the major wounds is not knowing who we are as a people [or] person since for most of us there is no knowledge of the exact country, much less tribe from which our ancestors were stolen. Having the DNA test will therefore contribute to this aspect of healing and thus, this aspect of the reparations movement,” said Assistant Professor Adjoa A. Aiyetoro of the Bowen School of Law at the University of Akansas, Little Rock, AR and a national leader in the African-American reparations movement, in a recent email correspondence. 

Further, an expansion of such tests will begin to cement the links between Africans and African Americans, thus revitalizing their communities on both sides of the Atlantic, something that the late El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz (Malcolm X) and Rev. Dr. Leon Sullivan, the late Philadelphia pastor credited with helping to knock out South Africa’s apartheid, valiantly tried to accomplish. As I remember it, during some of his Sunday morning sermons at Zion Baptist Church, Sullivan, known as the “lion of Zion,” would roar that blacks in America were chosen to fulfill a great Godly mission and build a link to Africa while showing the world that the greatest adversity can often lead to the noblest victories. 

Now, via genealogical evidence and DNA proof, African-Americans must rectify their connections to nearly every branch of the human family tree, but most importantly to their African roots and identities. Indeed, many of us are Afro-Asiatics with European ties caused by rape that too often led to self-hatred. It is through this exceptional strength and rectification that black Americans will begin to cement their ties to the glorious past and the distant voices of our Uncle Macks. 

In Uncle Mack’s distant voice, I can hear the Hausas’ ancient poem, “We Thank the Lord God,” giving gratitude to whom Uncle Mack labeled the “great Lord Almighty” for heaven’s blessings and life itself. And I can visualize my father’s paternal Bini ancestors walking the streets of the ancient and powerful city of Benin, adorned with brilliant gold and where mosques and learning centers were the talk of the continent. And yes, I can hear my maternal grandmother’s Akan folks – perhaps the mighty Ashanti – telling stories and singing songs of their victories as dusk set in and the glowing sun settling below the African panorama of the pulsating life with roots meandering to the deepest reaches of time. 

For these reasons, it is of supreme importance for blacks and others willing to provide support, to marshal our efforts to find funding sources to get the masses of blacks to benefit from programs sponsored by, African Ancestry, Inc. and even National Geographic, so that the essence of such mystical and ancestral humming voices as my Uncle Mack’s can be understood and celebrated. That way we give our children – too often swayed by aimless violence and the lewdness of so-called society – the true strength and hope that was so aptly harnessed by our ancestors, but now hijacked via the guise of entertainment that mocks our glorious pasts. 

Donald Ogbewii Scott, a history columnist for the Journal-Register Co. and graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and Cheyney University, has written about history for The Philadelphia Inquirer, America’s Civil War, England’s National Archives magazine Ancestors, and Everton’s Family History Network. Scott has been a history lecturer in Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Speakers’ Program and researcher for the Pennsylvania Humanities Council, as well as recently completed five biographies for the African American National Biography online and book project, edited by Harvard professors Henry Louis Gates and Evelyn Higginbotham. The assistant professor of English at the Community College of Philadelphia resides in Cheltenham, Township, Pa. and can be reached at He was recently encouraged to carry the middle penname, “Ogbewii,” an Edo-language name of Nigeria’s Bini people that his family has been linked to via DNA analysis. The name emphasizes the importance of extended family and lineage.


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19 Dec 2006 . 19 Dec 2006
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