Identity Quest DNA Tests Reveal Your Ancestry, Going Back Centuries. Anyone Can Be Tested, but African-Americans Have a Stronger Motivation Than Most

By DeFiglio, Pam | Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), July 25, 2006 | Go to article overview

Identity Quest DNA Tests Reveal Your Ancestry, Going Back Centuries. Anyone Can Be Tested, but African-Americans Have a Stronger Motivation Than Most


DeFiglio, Pam, Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)


Byline: Pam DeFiglio Daily Herald Staff Writer

DeRionne Pollard remembers the whispers in her African-American family about why her grandmother had such light skin.

Now she has science to help explain it.

A few months ago, Pollard, of Lake Villa, opened a packet from a company called DNA Print Genomics, swabbed the inside of her cheek and returned the sample to the company's lab for analysis.

DNA tests reveal tantalizing glimpses of a person's ancestry. Anyone can take them. But they've struck a particular chord among African-Americans, who can't trace their families before about 1865 because few records were kept during the decades of slavery.

DNA is giving Pollard, a College of Lake County administrator, a glimpse into the veiled past. She reels off the results: 73 percent sub-Saharan African. Nineteen percent European. Eight percent Asian. Zero percent Native American.

The part about "19 percent European" gives her pause and makes her think about her light-skinned grandmother, who likely had white blood.

"My mom died when I was 4 - she was one of 14. And there was always a quiet conversation we had in the family about wanting to know what my grandmother was," Pollard says.

For many white Americans, ancestry can be a relatively simple matter. Some can pinpoint the village their Irish grandmother came from or the bustling Polish city their grandfather left when he was a boy, and even search birth records from those places.

African-Americans whose ancestors came here as slaves have no Ellis Island documents to sort through, no idea of their country of origin. And because interracial relationships were forced during the slave years and considered taboo long afterward, issues of identity are further muddied.

DNA testing, for those who seek it, can shed some light.

The Daily Herald arranged for four local African-Americans, including Pollard, to take DNA testing and possibly fill in the gaps of the past. Afterward, they gathered to talk about the results - and what they meant.

"Fundamentally, knowing where you're from is so important to knowing who you are. For people that don't know, this is a huge gap in your identity," says Gina Paige, president of African Ancestry, a DNA testing company. "When you get the information, you're like, 'wow.' You're overwhelmed."

Hush-hush secrets

In countless African-American families, people pick the brains of grandparents, aunts and uncles, trying to piece together what they can of their family's past.

Usually, they can go back three or maybe four generations.

"Because of the nature of our journey to this country (on slave ships), you're going to hit a brick wall. There are no records," Paige says.

African Ancestry has done 7,000 tests since it launched in 2003, and interest continues to rise.

Oprah Winfrey, Whoopi Goldberg, Quincy Jones and other celebrities were tested as part of a PBS television special, "African American Lives," which aired in February.

Some tests offer a percentage breakdown that measures the mix of cultures - African, European, Native American and so on. Others go further, even pointing to a likely area of origin in Africa.

For many African-Americans, though, learning their ancestry means facing a deeply painful reality associated, in most cases but not all, with slavery - the possible source of their European blood.

Modern African-Americans carry, on average, 20 percent European DNA.

"Most of it is as a result of rape," Paige says. "Historically, white men who fathered children with black women - the women were enslaved so they didn't have a choice."

Pollard reflects on her mix of ancestries.

"You see, for example, cousin Jean, and she has beautiful hair, and you think, 'Where did that come from? …

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