In Kendrick Lamar’s track “DNA,” from his sixth studio album, he claims royalty, ambition and hustle lie within his DNA as a black American.
Through at-home DNA ancestry tests, black Americans are looking for other qualities in their DNA as well. Ancestry tests such as 23andMe and AncestryDNA have become increasingly popular — use of the tests has nearly doubled from 2017 to 2018.
The website Ancestry.com has a page with the headline “Celebrate the African American history in you,” showing there’s a specific interest in the community.
Biology assistant professor Sen Xu said the tests work by putting a smear of a DNA sample, saliva that people send off in a tube, on a chip.
Sticky spots on the chip bind to the DNA. After that they can tell which nucleotide a person has for each genome.
Through the tests, Pamela Hill, African studies assistant professor, learned that out of her 80 percent African ancestry, 26 percent came from Nigeria and 3 percent came from African south central hunter-gatherers.
The test also gave her more specific breakdowns of where she comes from, including a certificate stating she descends from the Fang people in Gabon, Africa.
History before slavery
The tests are especially relevant in regards to understanding African history, Hill said.
“Oftentimes black history is started unfortunately in slavery,” she said. “It’s not taken all the way back to the Kemetic Egyptian beginnings, to the beginning of the pyramids, to the establishment of math and science and astrology.”
Hill teaches a course called Black Families, which discusses African-American history from its start in Africa. In the class, students must trace back their roots as far as they can, she said. Most of her black students can trace their roots with family stories and census dates up until the 1860s.
These tests serve as a vehicle for black students to learn about their history and ancestry before slavery and civil rights, she said.
Ancestral memory refers to activities or traditions black Americans do which mirror their ancestors in Africa. She points to practices of Voodoo or women in black churches covering their hair with hats the way many African spiritual groups did.
When people figure out where they came from, they might understand why they do certain things, she said.
“When we really understand Africa more, we can embrace ourselves better,” she said.
Hill also addressed her 17 percent European ancestry. The legacy of slavery is something that often is confronted with through these tests.
“You know that oftentimes women and girls were raped on the plantation,” she said. “It’s something you have to deal with.”
Importance of family stories
Hill said she doesn’t believe these results are perfect and questions the West Asian and Pacific Islander percentages from her tests. Regardless of accuracy, it’s important for people to start asking questions about their roots, she said.
Broadcast senior Sananda McCall recalls stories her grandmother would tell about how her Cherokee great-grandmother married a slave. She said she’d like to take an ancestry test because she’s curious about what part of Africa she comes from.
“I feel like everybody should know where they came from,” McCall said. “It gives you a sense of identity. We’re in this country, and of course it’s a melting pot of cultures. But who do we identify as?”