30 June 2009

Only connect

"Just because your genetics show you came from a place, should that mean you can lay claim to that group of people or place now?"

This quote concludes a BBC piece, Americans seek their African roots, about how DNA tests can reveal one's genetic origins. Apparently (I didn't realize) a lot of well-known African-Americans (such as Oprah) have done this recently, and thousands of others have followed suit.

This sort of genetic testing has been available for years; it's one of the first wave of targeted ads you see when you start doing online Jewish genealogy research.

According to the BBC piece, some African communities give citizenship and other honours to Americans who come to visit their place of origin. The quote is from the editor of Asante magazine, Ofori Anor, who doesn't appreciate this practice.

But to me the point is not so much laying claim as making the connection. Perhaps Mr Anor does not understand this, being from Ghana. Because a lot of Europeans don't understand this either. Some of the snottier ones even make fun of us Yanks and our family trees. But they don't know what it's like to not know where you come from. To not know, say, whether you're Scottish or Irish. To not know exactly which little German town, or big one, your ancestors came from. Let alone the continent of Africa! Let alone being brought to the New World involuntarily, as a slave!

No, it isn't about laying claim. It's about knowing. It's about putting unanswered questions to rest. And finally, it's about the relief of recognizing something you knew was deep within you, but you didn't know where it came from or why you had it or what it meant.

Image credit: DNA image from the Image Library of Biological Macromolecules based in Jena, Germany, which maintains a large archive of spectacular computer graphics of DNA, RNA, and proteins, via UCMP Berkeley.

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