Editor’s note: For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these “amazing facts” are an homage.
(The Root) — 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro No. 18: How much African ancestry does the average African American have?
A few years ago, it occurred to me that it might be fun to try to trace the family trees of a group of African Americans all the way back to slavery, and then when the paper trail disappeared, analyze their DNA through biologist Rick Kittles’ company, AfricanAncestry.com. The payoff would be to reveal the ethnic group from which their maternal or paternal slave ancestors descended back in Africa. We would trace their family trees using the massive number of records now digitized by websites such as Ancestry.com, and supplement the paper trail using new tools of genetic science to find more distant details about each person’s ancestry. My goal was to create a contemporary version of the television series Roots — think of it as Roots in a test tube, Roots for the 21st century.
The result has been four PBS series on genealogy and genetics, starting with African American Lives 1 and 2, featuring guests such as Oprah Winfrey, Quincy Jones, Maya Angelou and Tina Turner, and Faces of America, in which we included guests from across the ethnic spectrum, such as Meryl Streep, Yo-Yo Ma, Dr. Oz and Stephen Colbert. These four-part series proved to be popular enough for PBS to ask us to do a weekly program, Finding Your Roots, which aired on Sunday nights for 10 weeks this past spring. And soon we will be filming season two.
Making these series has been quite a learning experience for me, especially in terms of the genetic makeup of the African-American people. So, for The Root, I asked five DNA companies who analyze our guests’ ancestry if we could publish for the first time their findings about the ancestral origins of the African-American community. (By “African American,” I mean descendants of African slaves brought to this country before the Civil War, not recent African immigrants.) How African — how “black” — is the average African American? The results astonished me, just as they have surprised the guests on our TV show, and I think they’ll surprise you as well. But before revealing those results, I want to provide a short introduction to the secrets that DNA holds about a person’s ancestry.
What a DNA Test Can Reveal About Your “Racial” or Genetic Roots
Many of the DNA tests that we give our guests today didn’t even exist a decade ago. One of the genuine pleasures of making Finding Your Roots has been working with some of the world’s most brilliant geneticists and introducing their exciting new technologies to a broad lay audience. These new tests measure what scientists call “autosomal DNA,” which can be used to figure out how much of your ancestry traces to each of the world’s ancestral populations, people who lived in a particular geographical region, say, 500 years ago, via an “admixture test.” Or a test can be used to identify long stretches of identical DNA that two individuals share, therefore establishing the fact that they are related genetically even more recently from a common ancestor, and thus are cousins.
In other words, if we could produce an ideal family tree for two individuals being tested, one person would appear by name on both of their family trees. Analyzing your autosomal DNA allows you to find your “lost” ancestors by connecting you to these genetic relatives. These DNA companies have features such as “Cousin Connect” (Ancestry.com), “Family Finder” (Family Tree DNA) and “DNA Relatives” (23andme.com) that automatically inform you of your cousins who are located in their databases. And most exciting of all, adoptees can use it to find biological parents, or we can even find children born out of wedlock to one of our ancestors, discovering blood relatives we never even knew we had.
When I started producing Finding Your Roots, I thought that the emotional high point for an African American would be learning the ethnic origin of their mother’s or father’s family line, all the way back to Africa. After, all, that’s what Roots was ultimately about, right, finding one’s “Kunta Kinte moment”? And learning one’s African ethnic origins has proven to be quite meaningful to our guests. But to my surprise, among the most moving revelations to many have been learning the actual names of long-lost ancestors who were slaves and second, learning their admixture results.