FINDING YOURSELF – ROOTS AND HERITAGE

The other day I was told about an African woman and an African American woman discussing the Back to Africa Movement. The African American believed that her ancestors here in the U.S. helped build this country and made it what it is today. “Why would I walk away from what they built?” was her retort. She went on to speak about how present-day Africa is not the same Africa her ancestors were taken from. The African woman’s position was given as a counter view. She believed that Africa is the true home of the Africans in the diaspora, and those in the diaspora should help make Africa stronger, better. Two women, both are a progeny of Africa. One’s ancestors never left the Motherland, the other lives in the diaspora. Each one believed she held the correct view of reality, an assumption that created a dichotomy of ideas, a dilemma in which each assumed the truth had to be an either/or option.

I often hear this kind of discussion among my African American people. And too often we feel compelled to take an either/or position. I see, however, the two opposing realities as a false dichotomy. As an African American, it is true that my ancestors here in the U.S. helped build this country. It is true that the Africa of today, in some sense, is not quite the same Africa my ancestors were forcefully taken from. It is also true that, as an African American, my ancestral roots have their origin in Africa. This is true, whether or not we know from which tribe, country, or region in Africa our ancestors originated. And what is equally true is perhaps we should feel some sense of duty, if not an outright obligation, in helping to build up Africa.

Allow me to explain. My ancestors did help build the U.S., but they did it under duress. Some had no rights, while others had very little rights. And even after Emancipation, my ancestors continued to build this country without realizing all the rights promised to its citizenry. I can’t help but to think that those 1st generations of Africans brought to the U.S. did not pine for their homeland, no doubt wanting nothing more than for their children to return and live a life of freedom back home. And even though some of the subsequent generations may have wanted their children to remain here in the U.S., it was because they believed the promise of freedom would one day be fully experienced. I don’t believe any African American would argue that their dream has yet to be fully realized.

Within the modern era, nearly every country has experienced drastic changes that would be unrecognizable to the people living in the early modern period. We even have countries today that did not exist a hundred years ago. Many of the countries in present-day Africa have had their borders drawn up in 1885 by European leaders who met at the infamous Berlin Conference. Change is inevitable. But just like the Africa of the ancestors in the diaspora is in some sense different than present-day Africa, so is the U.S. in many ways different than it was in colonial times. And yet, we are still here. This simply proves that change is not a consistent and valid reason why those in the diaspora should not want anything to do with Mother Africa.

While a freshman at Rutgers University, I was perplexed yet impressed when I saw my Jewish American schoolmates leaving school to join the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) during the 1991 Gulf war to protect Israel from the Scud missiles being fired by Iraqi forces. Some had dual citizenship, but many did not. What they did have, however, was a sense of duty to their Motherland. Not many of them could tell you from which town in Israel their ancestors originated. For them, it did not matter. They had found a shared history, even if ancient, that binds them together as a people group, a kinship connection if you will. I believe that we in the diaspora can also have a sense of kinship, a shared history that connects us back to Mother Africa and its people. Let me share with you the journey that brought me to this reality.

In September of 2018, Ghana’s President Nana Akufo-Addo declared 2019 the “Year of Return” for Africans in the diaspora by inviting them to return and unite with their African brothers and sisters on the continent. A year before that, I had tested with 23andMe and Ancestry.com and my ethnicity estimates were quite surprising: 73% Sub-Saharan African, 26% European, 1% consisting of Ashkenazi Jewish and Indigenous American. You can visit my website for a more complete breakdown of my ancestral composition and ethnicity estimates.

I didn’t feel any different after learning my results. The knowledge, however, that the DNA of my enslaved ancestors’ enslavers had found its way to me, and would live on through my family’s descendants was a new reality I needed to process. But what did all of this newly acquired DNA information mean for me? I felt no connection to the history and culture of the countries listed in my ethnicity estimates. They were as “other” to me as I imagined I would be to them. The only thing that I could see we shared in common was the melanin in our skin.

Being African American often means being African with no apparent connection to Africa. So the land my 1st generation ancestors in the diaspora would call foreign is the only home I know. I could not talk about the “old country” as other ethnic groups could. My “old country” was somewhere in the American South, simply a different state in the same country. I needed a different approach that would enable me to connect my ancestors’ Motherland and my homeland. I needed to understand and appreciate my roots and celebrate two distinct yet connecting heritages on either side of the Atlantic Ocean as an African in the diaspora. I knew I wouldn’t be able to travel to Africa anytime soon. But what if I could meet here in the U.S. the people groups to which my African ancestors brought over to the Americas belonged? So I decided I would test with a third DNA Company called African Ancestry. From my research, I knew that they could help me make that specific connection.

African Ancestry certified that my father shares maternal genetic ancestry with Limba People living in Sierra Leone. A letter along with a certificate had declared that:

“Using the largest set of African mtDNA samples available today, we found identical, 100% matches for you with the mtDNA of Limba people. This means that at some point in the 500 – 2,000 year history of your maternal lineage (mother to mother to mother…) there was a Limba woman.”

A specific connection was made for my mother’s maternal genetic ancestry, Bamileke People living in Cameroon. Another 100%, meaning that at some point in the 500 – 2,000 year history of my mother’s maternal lineage (mother to mother to mother…) there was a Bamileke woman. This means I have people living in the Motherland who share both genetic and genealogical ancestors with me. I had previously traced my father’s maternal lineage back to my 4th great-grandmother, Mary Purifoy (1830-?). And for my mother’s maternal lineage I had also traced it back to my 3rd great-grandmother, Fannie Lowe (about 1848-?).

 

I can’t help but think that either Mary and Fannie’s mothers, grandmothers, or even their great-grandmothers had been taken from their Limba People and Bamileke People, respectively. I could feel their inner longing for their homelands from which they were taken. I could feel their struggle to pass on to their children born in a foreign land the foodways of their people as they mixed it with the food of the indigenous Americans and the Europeans. I could feel them striving to pass on to their children bits and pieces of their mother tongue, perhaps a melody to a song they had learned as a child back home but could no longer recall how to say all the words. And yet, somehow, they managed to pass that melody down to their children using the lingua franca of their captors. I could feel them fighting not to forget the husband and children they loved and were torn away from, never to see again in this lifetime, yet loving with all their heart the new families they were giving birth to in the diaspora.

This was just the connection I needed to help me understand and appreciate the two realities I have living in me. I don’t have to live under the fallacy that my options are limited to an either/or. I could, as a child of the African diaspora, love and appreciate my roots, and be committed to the heritage and legacy my ancestors created here in the U.S. And yet, as a descendant of Africans, I can explore, and cultivate a sense of duty to my ancestors’ Motherland, my Motherland.

Today I continue that exploration of how being an African American does not and should not prohibit me from being connected to my African brothers and sisters, and Mother Africa. After all, as an African American, I am an African living in the diaspora, and that means I have the privilege and the obligation of discovering and celebrating both my roots and the heritage that my ancestors created.

I would love to hear about you finding yourself and discovering your roots and heritage. Please visit my website myancestrychronicles.com to find out more about me and what I do, and subscribe to my YouTube channel: My Ancestry Chronicles with Di Shawn J. Gandy to see more content.

Written by: Di Shawn J. Gandy

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