Tag Archives: African American

African American Identification with Ghana Before Genetic Genealogy

African American identification with being part of the African diaspora varied throughout time, place, and circumstance. In the U.S. where society is still battling with institutional racism and personal prejudices against people racialized as Black and against people from Africa [cite], it can be difficult to identify publicly with the African ethnic homeland. Despite the difficulty, there is a growing trend of African Americans doing just that.

For African Americans, the choice to identify publicly with their ethnic homeland of Africa was not easy and sometimes politically motivated. For many African descendants, aspirations of freedom included the liberation of Africa from colonial rule and a return to the African continent. Beginning in the 1920s, Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) promoted the mission of African liberation and uniting the Black people of the world. Garveyism was well known for its “Back to Africa” ideology, which gave the African diaspora a charge of developing Africa. Garveyism also included a charge for the African diaspora to uplift members of the Black race from the effects of slavery and discrimination in every country where Black people lived. It was a working class movement and, at its peak, had 6 million members in the Black world (Guridy, 2010). It carried the ideal of being able to both return “home” to uplift the ethnic homeland of Africa while also experiencing full citizenship in their birth countries where their African ancestors developed through forced labor and severe limitations on self-determination.

However, Marcus Garvey envisioned an Africa that was in need redemption (Kendi, 2016; Walters, 1993). He promoted the narrative that people of African descent were genetically inferior, a narrative which continued until W. E. B. Dubois’s 1908 publication and E. Franklin Fraizer’s 1932 publication stating that Black people were actually socially pathological rather than genetically pathological (Dilworth-Anderson et al., 2009). This rationale was partly based on Fraizer’s observation that as Black people gained upward mobility and moved away from poorer Black neighbors, their lifestyles were more aligned with White Americans (Dilworth-Anderson et al., 2009). The Black elite class of the time encouraged the cultural assimilation of White American cultural values, particularly the function and structure of White American middle-class families and their gender norms (Dilworth-Anderson et al., 2009; Kendi, 2016).

What became the racial uplift ideology of respectability not only regarded the highly functional Black extended family structure as pathological (Wilson, 1986) and African peoples and cultures as inferior (Kendi, 2016), Black American elites also held White American middle-class values as the standard by which to judge other Black Americans. They reasoned that showing this form of moral standing would help to reduce anti-Black racism from White people (Kevin Kelly Gaines, 1996; Kendi, 2016). Those considered as different from this narrow representation of morality were shunned within their communities (Collins, 2005; Kevin Kelly Gaines, 1996). While many ascribed to Black respectability politics regardless of their education or income levels, others sought to identity with Africa due to their ancestral heritage and common racialization.

Therefore, in 1957, when Ghana became the first African nation to gain independence from colonial rule, many people of the African diaspora celebrated their victory and drew inspiration from the possibilities of a liberated Africa. Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah, invited many African, West Indian, and African American dignitaries to attend the ceremonies celebrating the birth of the nation of Ghana (Kevin K. Gaines, 2008). According to Gaines (2008), these members of the African diaspora held positions almost on par with the Duchess of York in the independence ceremonies (Kevin K. Gaines, 2008).

From the late 50s to the late 60s, as struggles continued for decolonization in Africa, many members of the African diaspora in the U.S. continued to fight for civil rights. The U.S. South fought for desegregation while the U.S. North spoke up for African liberation and began calling themselves by the ethnic reference of “Afro-American”. During this time, many in the U.S. diaspora location also emigrated from the U.S. to Africa via Ghana (Kevin K. Gaines, 2008). “At the height of the civil rights movement, from the late 1950s to 1966, scores of African Americans, including intellectuals, technicians, teachers, artists, professionals, entrepreneurs, and trade unionists, left the United States for Ghana” (Kevin K. Gaines, 2008, p. 6).

While segments of the African diaspora, such Martin Luther King, Jr. and his followers, pushed for civil rights through integration, others, such sociologist E. Franklin Frazier, regarded the pursuit of integration as a compromise for social justice. Frazier saw the U.S. federal government as co-opting integration as a Cold War, top-down tactic adopted because of international criticism from countries of color. He felt that this legalistic approach to integration would not improve the socioeconomic conditions of the African diaspora in the U.S. Frazier also opposed the condition attached to federal support for integration which effectively required that the African diaspora reject all except an U.S. national identification (Kevin K. Gaines, 2008).

Some African Americans, such as Julian Mayfield, rejected Cold War censorship which resulted in them fleeing to Ghana. Ghanaian president Kwame Nkrumah welcomed dissenting African Americans and explicitly encouraged people of African descent to emigrate from Western countries and relocate to Ghana to help build the nation. As African Americans did so, many were not rejecting the U.S. specifically. They were rejecting the harsh treatment that Blacks faced in the U.S. They also refused to have their identification with their African ethnic homeland to be censured by the U.S. federal government (Kevin K. Gaines, 2008).

Others, such as Martin Luther King, Jr. on his return from Ghana’s celebration of becoming an independent nation, decided to silence his identification with Africa and African liberation to pursue the American dream by pressing for legalized integration and assimilation. Towards the end of King’s life, he became more vocal about his critique of U.S. economic discrimination and foreign policy. Towards the end of Malcom X’s life, he too began to openly criticize U.S. policies toward Africa. As more and more African countries gained independence from colonial powers and former colonial rulers began shifting to neocolonial positions, the U.S. government moved to support U.S. financial strongholds in Africa while silencing those African descendent U.S. citizens who disagreed with the U.S. neocolonial practices in Africa. African Americans who were brave enough to speak out were considered unpatriotic and faced repercussions (Kevin K. Gaines, 2008).

With the assassination of major leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X (who both spoke of racial unity, economic equality, and African liberation increasing before being murdered) and leaders of self-determinate movements such as the Black Power movement murdered by the U.S. government or silenced, the federally supported top-down integration project moved forward. As long as African Americans were willing to silently and peacefully assimilate into the pursuit of an American Dream of individual family successes based on White standards, they would more likely achieve upward mobility. Whereas organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) have worked tirelessly for legal wins against discrimination of Blacks, successes seemed to disproportionately benefit those already in positions of relatively individual financial privilege.   

In contemporary times, it is the African countries’ roots tourism industry, rather than major political figures, that seems to be inviting African Americans. The African Americans that create African transnational lifestyles for themselves are doing so less as a collective protest and more to pursue individual liberties.

References

Collins, P. H. (2005). Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender, and the New Racism. Routledge.

Dilworth-Anderson, P., Burton, L. M., & Johnson, L. B. (2009). Reframing theories for understanding race, ethnicity, and families. In Sourcebook of family theories and methods (pp. 627–649). Springer.

Gaines, Kevin K. (2008). American Africans in Ghana: Black Expatriates and the Civil Rights Era (1 edition). The University of North Carolina Press.

Gaines, Kevin Kelly. (1996). Uplifting the Race: Black Leadership, Politics, and Culture in the Twentieth Century (2nd ed.). The University of North Carolina Press.

Guridy, F. A. (2010). Forging Diaspora: Afro-Cubans and African Americans in a World of Empire and Jim Crow (1 edition). The University of North Carolina Press.

Kendi, I. X. (2016). Stamped from the beginning: The definitive history of racist ideas in America. Nation Books.

Walters, R. W. (1993). Pan Africanism in the African Diaspora: An Analysis of Modern Afrocentric Political Movements. Wayne State University Press.

Wilson, M. N. (1986). The Black extended family: An analytical consideration. Developmental Psychology, 22(2), 246.

A Ghanaian Family Welcomes African American Relatives Home

Great grandmother Nana Faba Idun (age 81) has lived in Elmina, a Ghanaian town of one of the infamous slave dungeons, all her life. Nana’s brother, Joseph “Kawantwi” Arthur, remembers the childhood stories of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Kawantwi spoke of having a great-grandfather who was taken away to work for the Europeans in another land. They thought they would return in their lifetime.

Nana and her brother believed as many Ghanaians believed, that those who left the coast of Ghana in bondage to Europeans would return to help enrich the lives of those left behind. Nana welcomes the surviving descendants of her enslaved family members, wherever they may be, to come back home and to help them build. However, it was not until after Kawantwi and other members of the family visited the slave castle in May 2016 that they came to realize some of the horrors that was the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

In May 2016, I collected DNA samples from Faustina (age 55) of the Ghanaian Fante ethnic group and conducted a conversational interview with her about identity, kinship, and slavery. A few days later, I went to her family home in Elmina and conducted a group interview with her mother, uncle, and other family members. I then collected a DNA sample from Faustina’s mother, Nana. I recorded a special message from Nana addressed to the descendants of the enslaved to come back home. I mailed the AncestryDNA kits and eagerly waited for their processed results to be listed alongside the results from Faustina’s daughter, Rhoda Quaigrain, who submitted a DNA sample several months before this visit. I was eagerly waiting for the results because identifying and reconnecting with the African ancestral family is the dream of many African Americans.

Speaking with Nana’s family and reading works such as Routes of Remembrance: Refashioning the Slave Trade in Ghana by Bayo Holsey, I learned that there is a common misconception in Ghana that the enslaved and descendants of the enslaved increased in riches in the Caribbean and the United States and selfishly chose not to return to Ghana to help their brothers and sisters who remained in their ancestral homeland.

Whereas some African Americans today can return to Africa to help develop their ancestral homelands, many in Africa do not know the history of U.S. slavery and Jim Crow. Nor do they know about the Civil Rights movements or other forms of resistance it took to get to this point. They are not aware of how the legacies of those times are expressed in the poor education and neighborhood conditions for many African Americans in the U.S. today. This lack of knowledge is understandable given that Ghana was formerly colonized by the British. The imposed British education was void of the horrors of slavery and the fullness of Ghana’s own history. Welcoming messages from the elderly in Ghana today are filled with notions of descendants returning to Africa to help develop it but are without notions of the social and psychological healing needed by people of African descent who do find their African families. Moreover, most people of African descent do not recognize how African life was shaped by pressing conflicts with colonization, making Africans preoccupied with their own independence struggles.

After I conducted the interview and collected Nana’s DNA sample, Faustina, her uncle, several other household members and I visited the Elmina slave dungeons. We learned of the horrors that was existence in those dungeons, particularly for the women. I visited the Cape Coast slave dungeons years ago, but still could not help but weep as the Elmina guide spoke. After the tour, I asked the family “Do you get it?” referring to why autosomal ancestry DNA testing and efforts to identify relatives in Africa was so important to many. They nodded their heads “yes” in unison. It was only now that they have come to understand some of the horrors associated with the slave trade and, maybe, some of the healing aspects of finding “home” for people of African descent. Maybe Kawantwi’s memory of his great-grandfather being taken away in slavery would take on new meanings for him and shape his interactions with returning relatives.

Since Rhoda, her mother Faustina, and her grandmother Nana took the AncestryDNA test, Rhoda has been able to connect with several of her relatives in the diaspora. Ailene Randolph-House and Melvin Collier are African Americans who are related to this Ghanaian family branch as confirmed through AncestryDNA results and tools on GEDmatch. Rhoda and Ailene have communicated several times by phone. Melvin recently took a trip to Ghana to visit with Nana and Faustina as family. Nana’s side of the family warmly received Melvin which included attending a Welcome Home celebration hosted by the Obeng family with over 100 people in attendance. Through ancestry DNA testing, Africans and their diasporic relatives worldwide can begin the process of forging family. Who knows what will happen next?

Note: Rhoda was first introduced through TAKiR in a blog post in January 2015: Ghanaian Connects with Caribbean Distant Cousin.

An African American-Guinea Family Reconnection

-by Willie Wynn

Mohamed’s maternal uncle Aly, Willie Wynn (African American), Mohamed Fofanah (Guniea)

My desire for quite some time was to find out information about my enslaved ancestors that were once enslaved in southern U.S. Being born and raised in Mississippi, U.S., I was familiar with visiting many of the restored plantations that held blacks as slaves in the deep South. This was the closest that my mind stretched in physically connecting with an indirect part of my history as a person of African descent.

Then in March 2015, my wife and I decided to visit South Africa. In the South Africa capital city of Cape Town, there were many West African immigrants who lived throughout this region. Many told me that my looks and facial features resembled people in their West African countries. These remarks pushed me to a greater action when I got back home to the US. I decided to invest in an ancestry.com test kit to get my full ancestral story.

My results came back 91% African DNA and connected me to many relatives who were my cousins in America. One match, however, stood out in a grand way as 100% African descent. This cousin match was Mohamed Fofanah, a person from the city of Conakry in the West African country of Guinea, but who was currently living in Dakar Senegal. He and I decided to upload our DNA on gedmatch.com and the results provided us with a more detailed estimate of how close we were related, a 5.5 generation distance.

Mohamed and I messaged one another through the ancestry.com system and exchanged Skype numbers shortly after my results came in. The rest of the story now stands as history. He and I now talk at minimum once a week. He has been very instrumental in sharing with me information about my African history. Both Mohamed’s mother & his deceased father have a long oral family history rooted through the Mandinka tribe. Mohamed not only serves as a DNA gateway to my family’s true home within the West Africa region, but he’s also a true friend. Our fellowship is more meaningful than “the cousin connection.”  I can truly say that he is an individual that I would befriend in the natural (if met in a regular setting) without knowledge of our DNA kinship. He and I are only three years apart in age, are very similar in personality & share many similar moral beliefs. My maternal Grandmother would always tell my mother that the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree. Genetic research and my interaction with Mohamed both solidify that we are connected to that common family tree. Fruits of one shared distant grandparent continued to multiply in Africa while the other was transported by force to the soils of America. Both trees, however, continued to multiply and now stand as physically reunited through divine intervention in 2016 for the first time in over 200 years.

My wife and I will be returning to Africa to visit Mohamed in Spring 2017 in Dakar Senegal.