African American News and Genealogy

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Saturday, December 10, 2005

DNA used to trace African lineage

PROFESSOR FINDS SHE IS AKAN FROM GHANABy Linda B. BlackfordHERALD-LEADER STAFF WRITER Lynda Brown-Wright's 50th birthday present to herself lay inside a pale brown folder, sealed with a ribbon of angular African design. She held the package tightly in front of her University of Kentucky graduate students in multicultural psychology. Brown-Wright nervously handed the packet to one of her students, who slipped off the ribbon, opened the flap and solemnly read: "This certifies that Lynda Brown-Wright shares maternal lines with the Akan people in Ghana." "Congratulations!" called one student. "It's so exciting to me," she said, holding a map of Africa with a star over the West African country of Ghana. "It's a country I know something about." Two years ago, her planned trip to Ghana was canceled because of an outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, which affected world travel. Eight weeks ago, Brown-Wright saw a TV show about African-Americans tracing their DNA back to Africa. Just a few days later, she swabbed the inside of her mouth with cotton and sent the samples off to a Washington, D.C., company called African Ancestry. For about $370, the company compared her DNA signature to a database of DNA samples gathered by researchers in Africa and this country. "I like telling people I'm from Louisiana, that's a part of me and who I am, and this is a piece of the puzzle," she said. Brown-Wright, who chairs the department of education and counseling psychology at UK, was determined to share the news first with her graduate students. "We talk about different issues related to race and ethnicity and history," she said. "So it seemed like the right thing to do." Her daughter, Haley, 24, showed up to hear the news, too. "I think it's great," she said. "I didn't know about it until a few days ago." Student Clarissa Roan agreed. "It's really exciting for African-Americans. A lot of times your history can't be traced," she said. "It's neat to be able to say 'I'm from here.'" More and more African-Americans are looking into the genealogy that was lost when they were brought to this country as slaves. According to African Ancestry president Gina Paige, 4,000 people have traced their DNA since the company opened in 2003, including such celebrities as Spike Lee and LeVar Burton. "This is definitely an area that's growing in interest for people," Paige said. "This is a compliment to traditional tools in genealogy." Women can trace maternal lines with mitochondrial DNA; men can trace both maternal and paternal lines through Y chromosome DNA. The company also tries to link DNA to different tribes or groups in those African countries. The Web site states that some lines trace to native Americans and about 30 percent of paternal traces show European heritage. In February, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. will host a PBS documentary on African genealogy using information from the same company, whose database contains more than 20,000 lineages from more than 389 indigenous African populations. Scientific breakthroughs such as DNA testing could change the fabric of U.S. and Southern history, historians say, just as Thomas Jefferson's biography has changed since DNA linked him to the children of one of his slaves, Sally Hemings. "This kind of scientific research will cause all of us to deal with our past, whether we want to or not," said UK historian Gerald Smith. Certainly, it's going to enlarge Brown-Wright's family lore. Now, Brown-Wright said, she has to decide whether she'll turn her birthday present into a Christmas gift for the rest of her family in Louisiana or call them with the news soon. "It's a missing link, being shipped here and not having that piece of your history," she said. "I always identified with Africa, but I never knew which country."


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