Saturday, July 18, 2009

African DNA

It's almost as time has taking control of my dna!
Scientists now trace the origins of both of these people-and of all human beings who have ever walked the face of the earth-to Black Africa, to the region around what is now Ethiopia. As Spencer Wells, the director of National Geographic's massive Genographic Project, puts it: "Our species evolved in Africa, and a subset of Africans left that continent around 50,000 years ago to populate the rest of the world. Our earliest ancestors probably looked very much like modern Africans."

This would have been news to "Bull" Connor and Orval Faubus and countless other racists from our past. It is also news to most of our brothers and sisters today all around the world. But it is an undeniable fact. We are all, in a very real sense, "Africans." The only question is how recently did our ancestors leave the Motherland? For the 35 million of us who are African- Americans-and for Black people in the Caribbean and Latin America-the answer is: very recently.

The first enslaved Africans arrived in the United States in the 17th century. So, in historical terms, our ancestors arrived here from Africa virtually "yesterday." This means that we are among the oldest Americans; but it also means that our relation to our African ancestors is recent.

This also means that we have many genetic "cousins" walking around the African continent today-a fact that has long obsessed me. Like 130 million other people, I watched every episode of Alex Haley's Roots when it first aired in 1977. And like many other African-Americans, I have yearned ever since to trace my own roots, to identify where in Africa my own ancestors came from, what tribe they were part of. Why is it important to do this? Two reasons. First, almost as soon as an African-American steps off a plane in Africa, he can't help but realize how "African" our people still are. Despite the horrors of the slave trade, African slaves brought their culture with them: their music, dances, religious beliefs, the way they cooked food, the way they walked, the way they lived--and loved--even the way they buried their dead. And many of these customs and traditions have been preserved, or subtly transformed, by our African- American ancestors. Indeed, if you go to a dance club in Africa, attend church, or eat a meal with an African family, you will be surprised at how much you can feel right at home, as if you have just met long lost relatives. The feeling is uncanny-and intensely pleasurable.