Regaining a Lost Heritage: Can a Simple Procedure Unlock African-Americans' Genetic History? or Is DNA Tracing Just an Expensive Waste of Time?

Article excerpt

This year's Black History Month program at my friend's Washington, D.C. church won t just feature kids reading about famous firsts and courageous equality fighters. Added to the mix is a lecture to the congregation on using DNA testing to determine their African lineage. Increasingly, Blacks are turning to science and not assumptions to put "Africa" back in "African-American." The eagerness to reconnect is understandable. People robbed of their history innately want to know where they come from. Veteran genealogists say the PBS special, "African American Lives," in which Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. revealed the family histories and African lineages of such celebrities as Oprah Winfrey and comedian Chris Tucker, certainly created a spike in interest in genealogy and DNA testing.

I was all too excited when my editor asked me to do a first-person story on this growing phenomenon. Genealogical research has become more accessible because of Web sites like Ancestry.com, which has made detailed pre-1930s U.S. Census Bureau records and vital documents available online. Another worthwhile site is FamilySearch.org, which plans to put the Freedmen's Bureau bank records online. Still, we can only go back so far with traditional research, and so much was lost in the Middle Passage.

Out of this desire to know exactly where we come from, African Ancestry Inc. was born, says company president Gina Paige, a former product specialist for a number of Fortune 500 companies. For $299, the company analyses a person's DNA and compares it with the DNA samples of present-day Africans to identify an ancestral link. Co-founder and scientific director Dr. Rick Kittles, an associate professor of medicine and a geneticist at the University of Chicago, had used DNA analysis to determine his own lineage, but when word spread about his research, he was inundated with requests from Blacks wanting to know what stories their own DNA held.

"Really, the community created the company by demanding the service," says Paige. "I've commercialized his research to make it available to the world."

Business has steadily grown over the past four years, but it spikes during Black History Month, when people like me come calling.

African Ancestry has tested more than 7,000 people so far. By a conservative estimate, that means approximately 35,000 people (if you include their relatives) now know with which African populations they share ancestry. Among its clients have been parents who want to help their children participate in ancestry days at school, and people who hope to adopt an African child from a country to which they've traced their DNA.

Not In This Lifetime

Using cotton swabs, I scraped the insides of my cheeks to obtain the mitochondrial DNA, or mtDNA, that passes unchanged from mother to child. I then waited for African Ancestry, which is based in Silver Spring, Md., to map the genetic sequence of my mtDNA into a unique signature called a haplotype. That signature is then compared with genetic signatures of Africans from various ethnic groups. The company traces maternal lineage through the mtDNA of women and traces paternal lineage through the Y chromosome of men.

As I waited on my results, I did more research into the business of DNA analysis to trace ancestry. A Google search revealed so many companies peddling ancestry info for a price, I stopped counting at 15. One company was offering a group special: 15 percent off the price of each kit if you order three. "You can even match yourself and other family members to famous people, like Genghis Khan and Marie Antoinette," promises another DNA-testing company's Web site.

I already had a fair dose of skepticism when I talked to geneticist Dr. Bruce A. Jackson, who oversees the African-American DNA Roots Project at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell. The project is collecting DNA samples from Blacks for possible matches with West African tribes. …