As a black American, I envied the ancestral ties of others. Then one DNA test changed my world

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Growing up, I envied my classmates. They could and would cite their heritage. Elio was Italian-American. Rachel was Irish. Maria’s grandparents had come to California from Spain via Mexico. Jewish children had family roots in Russia, Poland or Germany. They talked about going to Israel. I envied their pride in their heritage. I envied their comfortable connection to their ancestry.

As a black American, I couldn’t do that. I had no idea where my family came from. Africa, of course. But where? When? Who? No one in my family could trace our lineage back more than three generations. Then the track got cold. I had found basic information about several of my grandparents in census records dating back to the 1870s. But, as other black Americans discovered, I could find no family records dating back to that time. before the Civil War. Slave owners tended not to bother to register births, deaths, and parentage of their “ownership”.

In 2005, I was working as a correspondent for ABC News, then assigned to the Boston bureau. I came across a newspaper article about new genetic tests that scientists said could provide the ancestry of African Americans to a specific region of Africa. This new technology could cross-reference and connect his genetic code to a group of people in a distant land, which, essentially, is how DNA testing works. A few years ago, that would have been impossible.

My journalistic instincts kicked in – I knew this would be a great story to tell. I pitched it to “Good Morning America” ​​and they liked the idea. But the producers came up with something that hadn’t occurred to me. They asked me to tell the story of DNA testing through my own experience – they wanted me to take the genetic test and reveal the result on “GMA”.

I agreed.

I reached out to African Ancestry, one of the first companies to do the testing, and Gina Paige, the president and co-founder, said, “To really understand who you are as a black person, you have to go back to the roots. who you are from.”

“As African Americans,” she says, “we don’t know where we come from. We have a void. We are the first victims of identity theft. We don’t know our original names. We don’t speak our native languages. We don’t know who our ancestors are.

I was sent a test kit which included a cotton swab to take a saliva sample from my cheek. I sent him away and waited, anxious to figure out who I was. A few weeks later, I was sitting on the “GMA” set with the show’s co-host, Robin Roberts.

Robin introduced the edited piece I had prepared. It rolled. I looked but my mind was elsewhere.

When the story ended, Robin smiled at me. She said, “Are you ready?”

“I think so,” I said.

She spoke slowly, deliberately, bringing out the tension.

“And the DNA test results show that you are related to the Ashante people of Ghana.”

“Fragments of thoughts ricocheted through my mind, but one thought remained – I wished my father was alive to share this moment.”

Ron Claiborne hears his DNA results on “Good Morning America.”

I said something, a few words, but I was no longer there. My brain exploded into a kaleidoscope of thoughts and emotions. I was delighted, yes, but also upset. She was almost too to input. Fragments of thoughts ricocheted through my mind, but one thought remained – I wish my father was alive to share this moment.

Long before we called ourselves African Americans, my father had studied African history, politics, and culture. He was deeply curious about our ancestral land and how we as a people were connected to it. In the early 1960s he had traveled to the then newly independent nation of Kenya, a rare thing for black Americans at that time. He would have been so proud to know that we were connected to the Ashante.

The segment ended and I left the studio, still dazed. I started walking. I kept thinking, Now you know. Now you know.

As I walked – I didn’t really pay attention to where I was going – I began to form an image of my ancestor who was taken prisoner in Ghana, transported across the Atlantic and arrived in America chained and surely terrified, A stranger in a strange land destined to live a life in servitude. My joy was replaced by anger that came on so suddenly it was unsettling. I was angry at the horrors that my ancestor had surely suffered. I was enraged by the sheer injustice of this one.

That night I decided to go to Ghana.

Three months later, I flew to Accra, the capital of Ghana. I was nervous with anticipation. I also wasn’t entirely sure what I was going to do when I got there. But I had a contact. A friend had gotten into a taxi in Chicago driven by a Ghanaian immigrant. She called me and put me on the phone with him. He was friendly and eager to help. He insisted that when I went to Ghana I should visit his brother, Theophilus, who lived in Kumasi, the main town in the Ashante region in the interior of Ghana.

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ABC News correspondent Ron Claiborne is pictured in Cape Coast, Ghana.

Accra was vibrant and colorful. Almost everyone was black. It was strange and exhilarating. It was Mother Africa, where my journey really began. I was home.

I took a night bus to Kumasi. My seatmate expressed surprise and was perhaps even a little wary that a foreigner – particularly an American with presumably the means to travel more comfortably – was taking the local bus. I told him I was in no rush and thought a bus would be a good way to get a feel for the country and its people. Luxury travel is fast. It’s comfortable. But it’s a bubble, I say.

You are inside, looking out. I wanted to be outside of that bubble.

Theo Opoku met me the next morning at my hotel near downtown. He was small, powerfully built, and had an open and generous smile. For the next three days, Theo took me all over the city, explaining Ashante traditions, customs and history. I had done some research, but Theo taught me things about my people that research alone could never do. The Ashante were a powerful tribe with a rich culture. When the British came in the 19th century to colonize what was then called the African Gold Coast, the Ashante resisted. Over the next few decades, the two sides clashed on several occasions. The strongest army in the world fought to subdue the Ashante.

Listening to Theo’s stories, I felt something like what I had seen and envied in my classmates so many years ago when they proclaimed their ethnic pride. They were my people. Rigorous and independent. Invincible.

During the few days I spent with him, Theo became my teacher and my friend. He took me to local restaurants where I ate food I had never heard of. I met his friends and we told stories and laughed. Theo and I visited markets and a quiet lake in the mountains outside of town. He took me to the Ashanti Royal Palace. I visited his home and met his elderly parents. Theo taught me Ghanaian day names – a nickname based on the day of the week you were born. I was born on a Thursday. My name day was Yaw or Yao.

On my last day, Theo surprised me by handing me a gift wrapped in thick paper. I opened it and found four carved wooden elephants of different sizes, I was deeply moved.

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The castle in Cape Coast, a Ghanaian town on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, is home to a former slave trade outpost called the Gate of No Return.

From Kumasi, I took a bus to the bustling coastal town of Cape Coast to visit the 17th century Portuguese fortress that had once been a transit station for the slave trade. The prisoners – some of them captured by Europeans; some by rival African tribes who sold them to Europeans – would be held in dark, fetid cells until it was time for them to be led in chains through a stone tunnel known as the Passage without back and loaded onto ships bound for the Americas. Between one and two million robbed Africans would not survive the brutal conditions and cruel treatment during the months of the Middle Passage. In a way, my ancestor had done it.

Once again my imagination turned again to my distant ancestor locked in the horror of the hold of a slave ship. I thought of the gripping fear, the bewildering uncertainty and, surely, the painful despair.

I would end up spending a week in Ghana, mostly walking the streets, taking it all in, passing people and looking at their faces with what must have looked like strangely intense curiosity. I looked at them and I thought, are we a family?

“We have been cut off from our roots. We were adrift.

Probably since humanity exists, people ask themselves: who am I? For black Americans, this question can become a hunger – a desperate quest – for we are aware that we alone have been systematically deprived of this knowledge.

A few years after my trip to Ghana, I was in a taxi in New York. I looked at the driver in the rearview mirror. He had a horizontal scar under one eye. I asked him if he was from Ghana. He said yes. Was he Ashante? Yes, he said. But now he raised his eyebrows and stared at me. I explained that I recognized the mark on his cheek as something many Ashante have. Soon we were chatting like old friends, telling stories and laughing easily. I told him about the genetic test, my trip to Kumasi and my constant search for what I had missed.

When I got out of the taxi, the driver got out too. He came around the car. We stood there looking at each other for a moment.

We shook hands, then snapped our fingers – Ghanaian style.

The driver looked at me and said, “You’re part of the family.

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Theo Opoku, left, and his father are pictured at their home in Ghana. Opoku took ABC News correspondent Ron Claiborne to the city of Kumasi, teaching Claiborne about the traditions, customs and history of the Ashante people.

Ron Claiborne previously written about his experiences in Ghana for ABC News. He retired from ABC News in 2018 after 32 years as a national and international news correspondent. He was also the news anchor for the weekend edition of “Good Morning America” ​​for 14 years.

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