Knowing My History Is Better Than Remaining in the Dark
As we stood on the Beverly Hills patio of a friend's house last month, talking about a myriad number of issues, Isaiah Washington's eyes lit up when the subject turned to one of his life's passions: reconnecting with his African ancestry by virtue of DNA.
An accomplished actor known to many as Dr. Preston Burke on "Grey's Anatomy," Washington has become an ardent champion of African Americans doing all they can to better establish — and understand — the African portion of who they are, just as they have fully embraced being an American.
We first connected at the Congressional Black Caucus dinner in 2006 where he was a presenter. As a fan of the show, I wanted to just say hello, but also to give a shout out to a fellow native of Houston.
Little did I know that through DNA, we would one day be family.
In December 2006, at the pre-Kwanzaa celebration hosted by WVON-AM/Chicago, I had my DNA tested by Gina Paige and the folks at AfricanAncestry.com. I had heard about the testing for some time, and was anxious to have it done myself.
So when the envelope arrived in early February 2007, it was wonderful to see for myself who I was linked with based on my DNA.
"It is with great pleasure that I report our MatriClan analysis successfully identified your maternal genetic ancestry," wrote Paige on Jan. 29. "The mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) sequence that we determined from your sample shares ancestry with people in several countries today: the Mende and Temne peoples in Sierra Leone, the Mandinka people in Senegal, and the Balanta people in Guinea-Bissau. While these groups may differ socially and culturally, there are people within them who share a common genetic ancestry."
On March 13, I got the news that my DNA from my paternal side "has European ancestry. We found markers similar to yours among people living in Germany," Paige wrote.
It was interesting when I told Isaiah this because he is often fond of
saying that "DNA has memory."
He got a huge laugh when I told him that maybe that explains why my dad named me Roland, which is a common name in Germany.
"No doubt," he said.
I don't know the origin of my dad choosing that name, but being African American and having a better understanding of your origin is gratifying.
Growing up, I knew that my maternal ancestors on my dad's side were full-blooded Native Americans who migrated from Oklahoma. On my mom's paternal side, I was often told about my ancestors migrating to southern Louisiana from Haiti.
For me, it all stopped there. Deep inside I always wanted to know more, and as a journalist, it's my job to ask and probe.
I've heard some African Americans say that they really don't care to know such details, suggesting that the inability to trace their families directly from present day to their roots isn't important. But it really is.
Just the other day I was on the plane and reading a story in USA Today about a Maine lawmaker who worked feverishly to pass a law to allow adopted children to have their once-private records unsealed so they could know who their birth parents were. But Sen. Paula Benoit, who was adopted as a child, was stunned to find out that when the records were revealed, she was an aunt of another state senator, Bruce Bryant, who had a brother, Mark, serving in the Maine House of Representatives.
Can you imagine the feeling of Benoit, who always knew she had family out there, but didn't know where to start? The gaps in her life were filled, and just the idea of having some closure was gratifying.
I'm not sweating the fact that I may not have the joy of Benoit by being able to say with 100 percent certainty who my ancestral family members are. But I can tell you this: I am more determined than ever to close that gap as best as I can, and will make it my mission to travel to Sierra Leone, Senegal and Guinea-Bissau to learn personally about the people I am connected with by virtue of DNA in West Africa.
In fact, I'm going along with Washington and others at the end of May for a two-week trip to Sierra Leone.
And I've already decided to have one of my mother's brothers find out the lineage of my grandfather, and my dad find out his maternal DNA.
Through the advent of technology, we have the chance to solve the mysteries of life. So why not do it?
Roland S. Martin is an award-winning CNN contributor and the author of "Listening to the Spirit Within: 50 Perspectives on Faith." Please visit his Web site at www.RolandSMartin.com. To find out more about Roland S. Martin and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.
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