LaKisha David | April 28, 2017, 11:45 a.m.
Up until this time, this blog focused on initial family reunions between people of African descent in the diaspora and Africans immigrants. Many people, including academics, never thought this would be possible because of the amount of time that has passed between the time of separation into the Transatlantic Slave Trade and now. But people of African descent are increasingly finding their African relatives through a relatively accessible commercial product, enabling them to fill in major gaps in their family and community narrative. Rather than focusing on the initial finding of the relatives, which several individuals and organizations are facilitating, I am redirecting this blog to focus on the short- and long-term impact of these reunions.
As confirmed by autosomal DNA tests, families that were separated by the Transatlantic Slave Trade are being reunited at the 4th to 8th cousin level. Some companies, such as Ancestry.com and 23andMe, use autosomal DNA testing to compare the DNA profile of one customer with the DNA profile of another customer to determine relatedness based on the percentage of DNA the two customers have in common. When African immigrant customers take an autosomal DNA test and have their DNA profile compared to the company’s vast database of customers, the African immigrant customer receive a list of people with whom they share a certain amount of DNA. The majority of the people in the results list are African Americans. With basic knowledge of DNA science, people of African descent are then able to identity African immigrant relatives. In this way, African families that were separated by the Transatlantic Slave Trade are actually being reunited.
What comes as a surprise to many, including academics, is that these reunions are possible. Common thinking was that African Americans and other people of African descent would never be able to find their African families from before slavery. Unfortunately, the usefulness of the autosomal DNA test is being confused with results that offer African ethnicity estimates. With good reason, many question the accuracy of ethnicity estimates and the motives of companies that offer these types of services. However, the methods to determine relatedness is different from the methods used to estimate ethnicity. Without going into too much detail, estimating relatedness is determined by calculating how much DNA two customer saliva samples have in common. Those meeting a certain threshold of common DNA are listed in the results as a DNA relative. Using this information, along with other genealogy tools, people of African descent are identifying African immigrant relatives from among the customers listed as their DNA relatives.
With that being said, I think the real hesitation with embracing the fact of reuniting African families is the idea that the moment of separation happened too long ago to be reconciled. But it is happening and the general public will soon catch on to this amazing phenomenon. So what does it mean if people of African descent still share enough DNA with a person born in Africa to be detected? How must our thinking about family and identity development change to accommodate the impact of new types of relatives? What does this mean for future engagement?
That brings me back to the point of this blog entry. Instead of focusing on these amazing reunion stories, I would like to engage you in conversations about the meanings of these reunions. The next several blog posts will be thought pieces that I hope you care to engage in. I do this as an African American woman in the journey of finding African family members and filling in major gaps in my family history. I also do this as a PhD student at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign (UIUC) in the department of Human Development and Family Studies (HDFS). All this really means is that I spend a lot of time thinking about the impact of these reunions and I would really like to talk with you about it. What would you like to discuss more?