Derecka Purnell, The Guardian, February 24, 2020
When my cab driver learned that I was rushing to the airport for a flight to Mauritius, he asked whether I knew where I really came from. I did. It was St Louis, Missouri. I shared that some black Americans look to Africa to find a sense of identity and homeland. Not me.
During the transatlantic slave trade, Europeans kidnapped millions of people from different parts of African for chattel slavery in the Americas. One to five million Africans died during the voyage, mostly due to conditions, murder, disease, suicide, and self-defense. Many battled back- there was a rebellion on one in ten slave ships. For punishment, the captain and crew tortured the Black bodies beneath the planks and threw them overboard to the sharks. If I trace the various lines of my ancestry, perhaps one will lead me to the sea.
This generation’s Back to Africa movement starts with a swab and an envelope. Millions of people use companies like AncestryDNA, 23andMe, FamilyTreeDNA, and Helix to sequence their DNA, discover their roots, or find common genetic patterns in a geographic location. I am deeply suspicious of genetic companies that profit from the consequences of slavery, colonialism, and forced migration, and often think: Wait, they stole us, created industries on the backs of our free and forced slave labor, and now they are charging us to find out where they stole us from?
Slavery can be a source of deep shame for black Americans. We may dream about piecing together families that have been torn, sold, and killed for centuries. I plan to build my own family tree, starting with conversations I’ve kept with my great-grandmother, born in 1918, and great uncle, born in 1922. Both passed away around the time I finished college. When people ask me where I am from, I speak about the people who made me possible, not just the geography.
Contrary to these ancestry trees, DNA ancestry tests can be problematic. Last year, federal law enforcement agencies began forbidding agents to submit their biological data to ancestry companies. This month, Ancestry.com released a report that listed their lawsuit against a law enforcement warrant to prevent providing a customer’s DNA. The company has routinely shared other biographical information with law enforcement, similar to other finding your roots businesses. Black people are particularly vulnerable: our DNA is disproportionately collected, stored, planted, and used against us in criminal proceedings. Handing over such intimate information heightens the risk for abuse.
Additionally, abolitionists, organizers, and scientists worked diligently to debunk racial science claims that essentialized black people, including ideas that we were less than human, had super strength, could not feel pain, or deserved punishment – the same logics that inform policing and mass incarceration today. Now, art and science has unequivocally proved that race is a social construct made up by human beings to categorize and exploit, and that there is nothing in the human body that makes race real or biological. I fear that modern DNA companies put positive spins on widely inaccurate racial science by highlighting geographical regions where people shared some parts of our DNA strands 500 years ago. It’s a new form of racial science that perversely permitted at least one white business owner to sue for being denied entry to a government program for minorities. Per his test, he estimated that he is 90% European and 4% Sub-Saharan African.
Ultimately, I shared with my cab driver that I visit Africa every year, almost ten times now, from Morocco to Mozambique. This time, I was going to Mauritius to hike Le Morne, a mountain in the south where runaway slaves escaped to and setup maroon communities. The French enslaved people from Mozambique, Madagascar, and South Africa Mozambicans on the island. As they ran away, they created entire villages in the caves and used the mountain’s resources to survive. When the maroons saw armed police coming up the mountain in the 1830s, they all jumped off the cliff. They thought they were going to be enslaved again, tortured, and murdered – the penalties for running away. Tragically, the police were coming to let them know slavery was abolished. They all died, “free.”
I do not look toward Africa to locate where Europeans stole my ancestors from. I look to discover the long histories of traditions, freedom, and resistance that make me possible. I do not search for my African name, but rather the names of Africans who led revolts against empires and colonizers. More than our DNA, people of African descent share a political struggle intimately connected to all oppressed people in the world. Due to current conditions of economic oppression, and a recent travel ban to Nigeria, most black Americans will never see the continent. But studying our political roots is the key to securing a better future where we can be truly free.