An Examination of Ethnic and Family Identity Development among African Americans Connecting with Genetic Relatives from Africa
A Sense of Lack in African Ancestral History

This series is based on a study that examined family identity and ethnic identity among African Americans who used commercial genetic genealogy services such as Ancestry and 23andMe and tools such as GEDMatch to identify genetic relatives from Africa.

Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: A Sense of Lack in African Ancestral History

Participants in this study described developing a sense of lack in African family history through an intertwining awareness of both their ancestral ethnic history and ancestral family history. The sense of lack developed through experiences like watching the Roots miniseries and being assigned a family history elementary school assignment. The sense of lack developed during childhood lasted into their adulthood, fueling their rationale for using genetic genealogy to find relatives. Participants attribute experiences like seeing their family’s genealogy displayed and being told that they look African for causing them to specifically consider genetic genealogy as a method to address their sense of lack.

Developing a Sense of Lack in African Family History

Developing a Sense of Lack in African Family History describes a loose process of engaging in experiences that participants believe created or deepened their sense of lack in their African family history. A common experience among participants was watching the Roots miniseries on television as a family. This experience socialized participants to personally claim the population narrative of being taken from their African ancestral homelands through the Transatlantic Slave Trade. The key character in the miniseries, Kunta Kinte, became an African American symbol to represent their own ancestor who was taken from Africa.

As an illustration of this process, Kwasi recalls when he was approximately four years of age joining his family to watch the television miniseries Roots. He says, I remember when Roots came out in 77…I remember everybody being so excited and me and my family being stuck at the T.V. I remember that.

I had always been fascinated by the story of Kunte Kinte in Roots and had longed to find my African roots.

Since watching Alex Haley’s Roots, I’ve always been interested in trying to find my own ‘Kunta Kinte’.

For Joseph, watching Roots left him with a sense of lack from his childhood that endured into his adulthood.

And because of my background of my family having been descended from people who were captured into chattel slavery during the Transatlantic Slave Trade, there wasn't a whole lot of records or information available to me in terms of going back before the Atlantic crossing. So that was always something that had always been on my mind ever since I was a child watching Roots.

Another common experience was an elementary school assignment that instructs children to create a family tree or, in some way, to gather information about their ancestral family history. For example, in the second grade, Joseph was given an assignment to find out if he had ancestors who arrived in the U.S. on the Mayflower. As an African American, his ancestors more than likely did not arrive in the U.S. on the Mayflower or any other willful voyage.

When Joseph’s mother learned about this assignment, she objected, calling it culturally insensitive. As a child, Joseph was happy and proud of his mother’s actions against the insensitivity of this assignment. However, he also was left with unanswered questions about where his ancestors came from. Joseph recalls, 'Cause it was like, ‘Okay, I didn't have ancestors that came over on the Mayflower, but when did my ancestors come over? Where did we come from?’ That question still wasn't answered. Although Joseph’s mother fostered a sense of pride in Joseph, her lack of ancestral family history reinforced his sense of lack in their family’s ancestral history.

This sense of lack developed in childhood also came from comparing themselves to people with other ethnicities who were able to identify their ancestral heritage with specificity. Joseph said that when he was a child, he felt kind of cheated. He wanted to reclaim that for himself.

Carboni explained that this sense of lack was salient well into his late adulthood.

After living over 50 years, I could not in my mind know exactly where my ancestors came from beyond my great-great-grandfather. So, I wanted to know, just as other races of people, where my people came from, and that puzzled me, and I had this desire to know.

Looking Towards Genealogy for Ancestral Family History

Participants had several experiences that sharpened their attention on the practice of genealogy for ancestral family history. Moments like seeing family genealogy channeled their sense of lack into an interest to engage in genealogy in adulthood. To illustrate, one participant, Marquis, did not have experiences such as the common family tree homework assignment, and he watched Roots for the first time in his adulthood rather than his youth. His sense of lack of ancestral family history developed in adulthood when he saw the genealogy of a prominent historical figure in religious text. He says, I wonder how mines would look if it went back that far. He then adds, What made me really get passionate about it was a few years later when I saw my mother on a computer writing down the names of her parents, and I think that was about maybe her grandparents, too, possibly. She had missing information, but it was still fascinating.

Similarly, other participants expressed becoming interested in genealogy after hearing a family member discuss their genealogy. Nzeh explained his genealogical curiosity of finding ancestors from Africa.

When my elder statesman cousin made the suggestion that it'll be really interesting if we could somehow trace my second great-grandfather, his grandfather, my second great-grandfather's ancestry back to Africa. That's the moment that I thought that it was time to explore genetic testing.

Commercials contributed to the awareness of using DNA testing for ancestry searching purposes. As Joseph explained, They kind of had just started doing the commercials back then I—"I found out I was 10% German and 12%"—They kind of started just doing that, and so I was really interested in finding out where in the world my genetics originated. He further explained, This is what led me to begin to utilize genetic genealogy as a means of learning more about my deep ancestry. Notably, the commercials stoked a sense of lack that already began developing after watching Roots as a child and subsequently not having much success searching archival records.

The push for the genetic aspect of genealogy also comes from curiosity about similar facial features between participants and Africans from specific regions or other family members. For example, Marquis recalls,He [African person] actually told me, You look like you're actually from Senegal. He said, If you went to my village Senegal, they'll tell you, 'No, you are from here…' I remember it like it was yesterday. This was impactful to Marquis because he interpreted it to mean that the African person was identifying with him. Similarly, Willie recalls his first trip to the African continent exploring his African heritage when, as he says, they mentioned to me that I looked like relatives that they had, and it just made me have a greater zeal…I actually took the test about a month or so after I got back.

In contrast to being curious about African facial features, Nechelle was intrigued because her light complexion was similar to a known ancestor. Having been born after the ancestor died, Nechelle had very little family information about the ancestor except that she was mixed raced whose father is a confederate soldier. Nechelle went on to explain, I want to learn more about him. It has helped me to understand the complexity of the slave issue and Southern states’ point of view.

Using Genetic Genealogy for Ancestral Family History

The participants in this study then began actively using genetic genealogy to learn more about their ancestral family history.

    Participants reported three main uses for actively using genetic genealogy:
  • to learn their ancestry composition in general
  • to learn about their African ancestral ethnic identities in particular
  • to further their genealogical research in family mysteries.

Participants typically tested to learn more about their ancestral composition. Participants used genetic genealogy to learn about their biogeographical ancestry estimates (BGA), commonly referred to as ethnicity estimates, as an admixture. It represents their ancestral history specified by geographical region. Example admixture results for an African American person may be 70% Cameroon, 10% Ghana, 30% France.

I was just--anything that they’ll tell me about my ancestry. All of it, you know, the composition, the ancestry composition.

Willie explained a similar desire, It was more so about me just understanding my ethnic breakdown based on results.

However, Joseph’s primary purpose for engaging in genetic genealogy was to learn specifically about his African ancestral origins. As he explained, my primary focus was trying to find out where in Africa did my genetic makeup originate? What regions? If I could find out a tribe or two or ethnic group. Similarly, Carboni said, I just really wanted to know where my ancestors came from. Although Kwasi shared that he wanted to know information about his ancestry in general, he also added another reason, to connect to my African roots through DNA.

Whereas participants were curious about the homelands of all their biological ancestors, the greater overall interest was in learning more about the ethnicities and homelands of their ancestors from the African continent. They were attempting to uncover the names of their African ancestral ethnic groups when their ancestors still lived as members of families and communities in Africa. They begin engaging in genetic genealogy with an awareness that most of their ancestry stems from multiple ethnic groups across multiple regions in Africa.

Participants also engaged in genetic genealogy to solve family mysteries. For example, Kwasi explained, People who are related that I didn’t know that are related due to, you know, families being separated during slavery and those things.

It's exciting because one thing about DNA testing as an African American, it gets me beyond the 1870's or the 1850's brick wall…which I was most excited about because as an African American, it's very hard to get beyond slavery.

I continued because my mother and father, having their moms and dads from both sides and trying to trace the line that with so many relative connections upward ancestrally. So, I wanted to feel in a comprehensive way of exactly where my family came from up the chain. Like grandmom was. Two grandmas, two granddads, four great-grandmoms or great-granddads and going up the line. I was just curious about knowing this.

Family mysteries included detailing their African genealogy as well.

Oh. Oh my gosh. I was excited just learning about the Fantes, and that was exciting because it's like I found our Kunta Kinte, or I'm getting close to finding my own Kunta Kinte.

When I took the test, I was craving to meet [genetic] matches from Africa.

Typically, the more information they found, the more they wanted to find. The desire to learn more details about how they are related and to develop meaningful kinship relationships with his relatives from Africa keeps participants engaged in genetic genealogy. This included testing multiple people in the known family to provide additional details about how the relatives from Africa were related to known family members. It also provided additional evidence that the relatedness was true.

Nzeh recalls testing multiple people in his family: I got my mom, two aunts done--That's three. Then I got my elder statesman cousin done, there's my grandfather's first cousin, I got him done; that's four. I got my mom’s two first cousins done back to her mom's side; that is the sixth. I got my grandfather's first cousins done, that is, what, seven, eight. I got my grandmother done; that's nine. On my dad's side, that's nine. I got my biological father's DNA done, that's 10, and then I got myself done; that's eleven. I think that's all..

Testing multiple people is necessary to help place previously unknown relatives in their positions on the family tree.

But these African matches, even when you find out they're related to you, there you want to take it even deeper. You want to have that same relationship that you have with your American cousins as you do your African cousins relative to how I'm related to you. It's a beautiful thing when you test your parents, and it's like a double confirmation, which side of the family you're on, and you're able to exchange information with them.…to go search deeper and really have that even more of a meaningful relationship, in terms of how you're related to them, on what side of the family, et cetera.

Nechelle explained selecting a specific family member to strategically test to learn more about her African genealogy: If I get him, which is like on my great-uncle's line, it goes back to the same ancestor; it will go back to my second great-grandfather. I do believe it was through that second great-grandfather where the Ghana connection is. I'm finding out all other connections that is in other collateral lines that I didn't even realize. I'm like, oh okay, this name and even though the collateral name is like, what, but not the one that I want. Recently contacted by a fifth cousin—Is this the African ancestor?!?

In addition to testing multiple people, participants also tested with multiple companies. Joseph explained, I decided to do the second one because I wanted to see what the features of 23andme were as compared to Ancestry. And Kwasi: I’ve taken all three, AncestryDNA, 23andme, and Family Tree DNA. And I’ve also tested both of my parents with all three. And Willie: I took first—no, second, and I took Family Tree DNA first. And Nzeh: Yeah, I've tested with the 23 and Me, I've tested with the—Family Tree DNA through African DNA, which is a subsidiary of Family Tree DNA…How many have I done on ancestry…and then I got myself done. Carboni recalls, 23andMe, there was another one I've forgotten the name of it. I have forgotten the name of it. But there were two that I took. [Confirmed that the other one was with African Ancestry]. Marquis took one and explained uploading his DNA file to other companies, AncestryDNA…and I transferred the raw data to GEDMatch and then two other sites, which is My Heritage and Family Tree DNA.

Marquis provided his rationale for testing his parents: Yes, just to confirm and to further study, kind of, what do you call it? Not criticize, but investigate how true the results are, and whether they would even match, and of course, yeah, they did, a lot.

I'm actually expecting to have my mother's DNA test back. And I got my father a DNA test as well...Trying to get as much genetic information as possible to figure out who all these cousin matches are. Who's on my mom's side, who's on my dad's side, answer a couple of mysteries that are still kind of lingering out there.

Although the strategies are similar, the emotional experience associated with exploration varied.

Finding the connections when you break down the brick wall you think there's this euphoria, but then there's always more questions.

Every time I would go, it was wonderful. Just the fact that history is actually a whole lot more exciting and alive than people will even know. That is the main thing that had me kind of digging into it for myself, and then you couple that with, which it is related, this growing pride in who I really am....I can only say a sense of euphoria and a little bit of completeness, and that type of pleasure that part of you is complete. Then, of course, that feeling, of course, sparks curiosity, more and more curiosity.

Previous: Introduction

Next subject: Evolving ethnic identity due to learning about living relatives from Africa (Coming soon)