The problem of ancestry and original homeland is becoming a serious cause for concern for most African Americans. Courtesy of a special DNA test, interested African Americans can now trace their roots. In this interview with Editor of The Chicago Inquirer, Joseph Omoremi, an African American DNA expert and University of Chicago professor, Dr. Rich A. Kittles, bares his mind on how his research is providing opportunities for eager African Americans to trace their roots and why it is important for them to catch on this unique experience. Excerpts:
Inquirer: What is the essence of DNA test?
Dr. Kittles: As an African American, I’ve always wanted to know where I come from. It was very important for me to find my root and I used all means possible-the traditional, genealogy searching of records-and the technology started evolving that we could use to trace ancestors and I started doing that for myself. And I got involved into some research project and people said, well if you could do that for yourself and for some other people, why can’t you do it for me? It became a big view that everybody wanted to trace their ancestors. That was why we set up the company that does that to provide the service to the public.
Inquirer: Are you the only company doing that?
Dr. Kittles: It is a simple thing. A lot of company is actually doing this sort of analysis but nobody really focused on African American because of many reasons. Number one, most folks don’t care about Black people. Number two, it is hard to go into Africa and collect samples. That is one of the things I’ve been able to do well and work with people in collaboration with people who have been doing research in Africa. I was at Howard University for eight years and when I was there, the Howard medical School was interested because they trained a lot of African physicians from Nigeria, Cameroon, Senegal or Ivory Coast and others. They come there, go to school and go back, and run the hospitals in their various countries. I made a lot connection through that network in Washington D.C. And that was very important because it fires me more and more because we are all the same. We are part of the African people. Some of our ancestors were kidnapped and taken away, yet we are still part of that lineage. We should respect each other and understand each other fully. The bottom-line is that I want Black folks here in America to connect more with Africa, understand them, respect them, learn and appreciate them and lobby for them. It was the same thing for Africans to their American brothers and sisters. It will bring us closer. The average Black person don’t care about Africa.
Inquirer: Why is that?
Dr. Kittles: If they really thought about it that could be their cousin or cousin’s cousin. We are closely related and we are a family. We should know based on how we were brought up, we should respect our family. Inquirer: How far have you gone regarding the DNA test?
Dr. Kittles: We have this huge database of about 20,000 lineages from over 400 ethnic groups in Africa. We spent a lot of time in the summer of 2000 going through Nigeria, Ghana, Cameroon, Senegal and Guinea. We samples data collected for us and presently we have lineages of over 20,000 people. It was funny meeting all these African folks and getting to understand different cultures and appreciate the amount of diversity. We are not all the same. There is a wide range of diversity and sophistication among African people that most Black folks here won’t understand.
Inquirer: Were you part of the team that went to Africa?
Dr. Kittles: Yes, I’ve been to Africa many times. I spent a lot of time in Benin City. I flew in to Lagos in the evening. Every time we went through the county or state, the cops always come around at roadblocks to look around. They always want money. If we give them the money, they will leave you alone but what that did was that it made me understand the dynamics of where and how in some part to the South in the U.S. is just like it is in Nigeria.
Inquirer: How was your experience in Abuja and other parts of Nigeria you went?
Dr. Kittles: In Abuja, it looks like a desert or an isolated nice community. It is kind of weird and I spent a lot of time in Warri/Delta and men, if you look at the amount of pollution in that environment, it’s worrisome. The ecology there is just spectacular historically and now it is devastated because of oil and stuff like that. Inquirer: Did you see fishermen?
Dr. Kittles: Yes, but they can’t survive because of the devastation.
Inquirer: How was your stay in the area?
Dr. Kittles: Fantastic. But when you have situation like that where there is no check and balances, it breeds certain type of behavior. And the earlier it is addressed, the better.
Inquirer: It appears Nigeria, like other African countries needs political structure instituted in their polity for democracy to survive?
Dr. Kittles: Yes, it is not in Nigeria alone. I saw it in Ghana too and Senegal. It is something that I see as part of that growth. I went to Accra, Ghana and I love Cape Coast because it looks like a mini castle where the slaves were shipped. They took them there, stored them there and shipped them out. This is a business. I had to work with historians and anthropologists to help identify which groups or tribes were captured so that we can make sure that they were in the database. African Americans are descendants of the slaves. Not all African Americans were enslaved. There were free Blacks during the slave trade in North America. Not all Africans were enslaved too. We had to understand the history of who were enslaved. I went to Badagry, another coast of point of no return. I met a young man in the museum. The man was a descendant of the king that ruled during the slave trade. They had the shackles and all that stuff. It was sad but that is part of history. Senegal had done a good job with Gory Island in terms of making it a notorious attraction but this is part of our history. We need to preserve it and let people come back to see it like the Jewish holocaust museum because if you don’t know your past, you can’t move forward.
Inquirer: How are all these information important to the genetics of genealogy you are doing?
Dr. Kittles: It allows us to transcend these lots of information. Think about it. About 10 million enslaved Africans over 400 years here in America and within two generations, all their history had gone. Family history, their language or traditions all gone. As an African American, we don’t know anything about all that. You walk up to the average Black person in U.S. and ask them where they come from in Africa, they have no idea. They say they are African American. They claim the whole of Africa-54 countries. There is some level of lineage there but they don’t know where they came from.
Inquirer: What has been your experience is doing the research and traveling all over Africa?
Dr. Kittles: It was exciting and humbling and scary at some point. What really got me excited was connecting with people who wanted to learn more about Africa. Like I said earlier, most African American don’t necessarily appreciate or like what Africa is all about. But most West Africans want to know more about African Americans. It is not because they want money or anything like that. They know that these are our cousins on the other side of the ocean. My experience has been nothing but good in Africa. When you land at the airport and you see all these people coming to you to grab your bag, it is scary. I had the same experience when I flew to Ghana in the evening, it was hectic. If you don’t have somebody to pick you up, it is advisable not to fly in to the city at night.
Inquirer: Can you relate the physical diversity in West Africa to African American here?
Dr. Kittles: One of the things I appreciate in West Africa was the physical diversity. Obviously, Black women are very, very pretty, prettiest women on the planet. Inquirer: Black is beautiful? Dr. Kittles: That is where the ancestors of African American came from. Of course you gona see enormous beauty there. It was very, very fulfilling to see that level of physical diversity that was there. You can see very dark skin, very light skin, big or tall everything is there. And that shows that these people has been there for a very long time and they have a lot of biological diversity.
Inquirer: How revealing has been the DNA test?
Dr. Kittles: It pretty straightforward test. We look at lineages like your last name which you got from you father. Just like that we can use the white chromosome that men pass on to their children. It doesn’t change, just like your last name. We can trace the history of that white chromosome to a particular place in Africa. Sometimes, it is a very common lineage, that means it spread out. It might be like Fulani in northern Nigeria or Mali and Cameroon. It is a very big area. You know these borders were just set up after World War 1. There was no Nigeria state before then. When we talk about Fulani, you can’t say Fulani are in one part of Nigeria because there was no Nigerian state then. If you have a lineage that is common in Fulani, a lot of time it may be in Nigeria or Cameroon and Mali. They are very old. In some cases we find very recent lineages that are exclusive to a particular region. A lot of time we find these Ghanaians lineages that are very specific to Ghana. They are not found in other places. What I find interesting was I find some Ibo lineages in Nigeria were very common with the in Khan in Ghana. Some people even said Ibos have some history with the Ashantes of Ghana.
Inquirer: Could they have crossed part during the Ashante Empire?
Dr. Kittles: It is possible. It is something that we see during the research. However, we could find your paternal lineage if you are a male and we also have what marks that looks at your maternal lineage, your mother’s mother and great grandmother like that. It is called MTDNA. MTDNA, if you remember the story back in the 80s about the Africa’s eve, that was the DNA that was used for the African eve’s study. What we did was instead of going back all the way 200,000 years ago, we just went back to a couple of thousands to the early history of the slave trade. These are the samples of the slave trade, where do the profiles of African Americans lie? After people took the test, we look at the profiles against the profiles of thousands in the database and we look for a match. And when we find a match, we say hey, this is a Fulani of northern Nigeria or Ashante of Ghana. We have all those lineages in the database.
Inquirer: How many African American have you tested so far?
Dr. Kittles: About 5000. Inquirer: Where do they come from? Dr. Kittles: About 36 percent of slaves came from the Grain Coast which is Senegal, Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. About 27 percent came from the Birth of Benin which includes Nigeria and 16 percent from Cameroon or Bight of Biafra. Central and Senegambia produced 10 percent.
Inquirer: Can you talk about the maternal and paternal lineages? Dr. Kittles: When we look at the lineages of African Americans, we see very few Native Americans like three percent maternal and one percent paternal but for Europeans in African American lineages, we see 30 percent paternal. That means three out every 10 Black Americans have European paternal lineages. It is a lot and very little maternal. Inquirer: Why is that? Dr. Kittles: Because of the history of the slave trade. Most of these men that had slaves took advantage of the African women. The signature in the gene, we see that today.
Inquirer: Why should African American do the test and where can they do it?
Dr. Kittles: It is part of our history and part of the need to understand who we are. Once we understand who we are, it helps shape a better identity on how we think about our people. It draws us closer to our people. There are a lot of disconnect which is very bad. This will bring us together. They can get it by going on the web at www.africanancestry.com.
Inquirer: How much does it cost to do the test?
Dr. Kittles: It cost $275. Inquirer: Is there an office in Chicago or across the nation? Dr. Kittles: No, the headquarters is in Washington D.C. They can order it. They can order the kits and just follow the instructions or call (202) 723-0900 and within five weeks you should get your result.
Inquirer: What sort of challenges do you face in doing the project?
Dr. Kittles: There are lot of confusion as to the reliability of the test. A lot of people say how can you do this and how reliable it is. It was kind of difficult to get all those samples. It took 10 years and we are still collecting more. We recently get a lot of data from Guinea Bissau. Almost 1000 lineages we just got from Guinea Bissau. We are still trying to get more from Angola.
Inquirer: In one of your presentation at the African Festival of the Arts, you described Sudan as where humanity started. How did you come about that?
Dr. Kittles: The Sudan and Somalia area probably has the highest level of diversity in Africa mainly because that is where humanity started. People agreed that humans evolved in the area about 150,000-200,000 years ago and went to other parts of Africa. That is why there are lots of East African lineages in West Africa and other parts of the continent. They have been around for a long of time and when you look at there DNA, it cut across many genetics origin.
Inquirer: What is the satisfaction doing the project?
Dr. Kittles: Every time I do a test, I feel satisfied. I get excited because I feel part of a community. Inquirer: What can the Black Caucus do about the ancestry DNA test?
Dr. Kittles: I think they can increase the awareness. All the savagery of fighting in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Rwanda and South Africa should have been more of a focus for Black Americans because those are our cousins. We need to lobby more and that is the job of our leaders to stand up and say we are concerned more about Africa. Few of them do it. If Africa becomes better, African American will be better in all ways. It is not the other way around.
Inquirer: What is the result of your DNA test?
Dr. Kittles: On my mother side, I have two Nigerian lineages-one Hausa and one Ibo. On my father side, it is Madinka and German because I have almost 30 percent white lineage.
Inquirer: But there is nothing white in your dark skin?
Dr. Kittles: It is confusing because skin color is race. Nobody look at my genes which says I have European chromosome but physically I’m African. I have these African lineages and European lineage and I’m African American. This type of testing is turning the race issue upside down.
Inquirer: Will more volume of testing change the percentage of 30 percent in African American lineaology so far?
Dr. Kittles: I don’t think so. Thirty percent has stayed there when we started doing a 1000 tests. Even in the Caribbean, it is a little bit high at 35 percent.
Inquirer: Why the difference?
Dr. Kittles: The Carribeans study is interesting because in Jamaica and St. Thomas or Virgin Island, a lot of that white gene flow is due to tourism. The white folks staying in the Island and having babies with the natives. In Cape Coast, in Ghana there are lots of Ghanaians with white daddies because of these tourists. Inquirer: Who is Dr. Kittles?
Dr. Kittles: I went to college in Rochester New York-Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) and went to graduate school at George Washington University in Washington. Washington DC was very fulfilling for me because it was Very diversified and I got my PhD and went to Howard University in 1998 and was involved in the human gene project and I set up a company called African Ancestry Inc. I want the company to remain in DC .