I am going to teach you something they never taught you in school. As African Americans begin to push more for our culture and become confident within ourselves, something white America taught us not to be, there is a missing piece in us that yearns to know where we came from. Some of us have the luxury of knowing exactly who our ancestors are but a lot of us don’t even know where to begin. Maybe I can help you start. There is a main group of African descendants that are very popular among the enslaved.
Unfortunately, we will never know exactly how many enslaved Africans were brought over during the transatlantic slave trade, however we do know a good estimate of 12.5 million between 17th and 9th century were forced to come to America and 10.6 million of those survived the voyage. That’s millions of our ancestors taken from the only home they had ever known, taken from their families and their livelihoods and forced to work against their will in a world they never had even seen before. Enslaved people brought here to America make up about 3.6 percent of the Africans transported here (388,000 people). Others were transported to colonies in the Caribbean, Jamaica, and Brazil. Half of the people from Africa came from two places; Senegambia and West Central Africa. Children made up 26% of the passage.
Nearly 50 percent of the total number of enslaved Africans in the United States come from these two regions however a huge number of enslaved people had their origins in the West African nation of Ghana. Others had originated in the Bight of Biafra, a cove off the Atlantic on Africa’s western coast that was a hub for slave-dealing operations.
They kidnapped almost 30,000 Africans per year in the 1690s and 85,000 per year a century later. The numbers grew more and more within the next twenty years. By 1820, nearly four Africans for every one European had crossed the Atlantic; about four out of every five women who crossed the Atlantic were from Africa. Africans brought to Brazil mostly came from Angola. The Africans in North America and Caribbean were mainly from West Africa. Only about 6 percent of Africans were sent to British North America.
The Middle Passage during the travel to America was dangerous, barbaric, and terrible for African slaves. They separated men, women, and children had no clothes to wear. They were also packed and chained together for very long periods of time. Our ancestors didn’t even know diseases like skin lesions, tetany, whooping cough, rickets, etc existed until they came into contact with these people and were forced into horrible conditions no human being should ever be in. Once they were here in America, in order to ensure the profitability of slaves and to produce maximum “return on investment,” slave owners only gave the bare minimum food and shelter needed for survival, and slaves were forced to work all day until sundown. The average price of female slaves was higher than males up to puberty age and men around 25 years old were the most “valuable.”
American plantations were made by those in the West Indies. In the Caribbean, many plantations had over 150 slaves and in the American South, only one slaveholder had as many as a thousand slaves, and just 125 had over 250 slaves.
In the Caribbean, Dutch Guiana, and Brazil, the slave death rate was so high and the birth rate so low that they could not sustain their population without importations from Africa.
In the nineteenth century, the majority of slaves in the British Caribbean and Brazil were born in Africa and in contrast, by 1850, most US slaves were third-, fourth-, or fifth-generation Americans. The US was unlike any other slave society with a high and consistent increase in the slave population for more than a century and a half.
With the mixing of different races, the constant rape of the enslaved, as well as removing families and placing them in other random homes, at this point many Black Americans were left without a clear view of where we come from.
There was a recent study that sheds light on the ancestry of Black and African Americans as well as Latinos and white Americans. Regional ancestry differences do reflect on historical events such as Spanish colonization, forced relocation of Native Americans and the forced arrival of Africans.
Previous studies have shown that African Americans in the US typically carry segments of DNA shaped by contributions from peoples of Europe, Africa, and the Americas, with variation in African and European admixture proportions across individuals and differences in groups across parts of the country.
So, skipping all of the technical talk, how do we find out where we come from if someone does not have the luxury of getting their history from their family?
Lately, people have been following these genetic companies that claim they can trace paternal and maternal lineages and find the roots of your family tree. Some popular companies are African Ancestry and 23 and Me. There are other companies such as Ancestry.com or Myheritage.com, but for Black Americans, we have found that African Ancestry and 23 and Me give them more information and accuracy for Black people than the other two.
African Ancestry has the largest database with over 30,000 indigenous African DNA samples and can determine which country, ethnic group of origin and other details significant to finding your history. It’s a pretty simple process; choose from the MatriClan, PatriClan or Family Package test kits, collect your DNA sample by swabbing your inner cheek and then return it back in the mail, and then it’s a waiting game.
Each kit prices at $299.00 (USD), except the family kit which is $729.00(USD) and you can start by taking a quiz if you don’t want to begin buying your kit right away. Late actor Chadwick Bosman went on the Breakfast Club and spoke about taking this particular DNA test and how it is more specific with Black backgrounds and we can take it from there, versus other test that say “you are 97% East African.” That doesn’t tell us anything when we are desperately searching for our real heritage.
23 and Me has also shown quite a bit of accuracy, however I would still probably go with African Ancestry over this one, but to be fair, let’s talk about it. Their DNA kit is $99.00 (USD) unless you want to upgrade to the Ancestry and Health $199 (USD) which gives you full access to all 150+ reports on the ancestry, traits and health. It’s also an easy order where you pick your kit, use your saliva to add to a tube and ship off, 3-4 weeks later you receive a confidential email stating your report is ready. There was an important article about a report done by 23 and Me where they found that the DNA of participants from the United States showed a huge amount of Nigerian ancestry as well as in Latin America compared to the proportion of enslaved people shipped to these places. They also learned that enslaved people were sent from Nigeria to the British Caribbean and were further traded into the United States. So, a lot of people are finding out they have Nigerian blood!
This is despite, nearly half of the slaves who landed in the United States coming from Senegambia (Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Senegal) and West-Central Africa (Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola), had their origins in Ghana as well as Ivory Coast.
The United States and the British Caribbean are found to have the highest African ancestry in the Americas. Previous genetic studies have also reported a lower percentage of Latin Americans with African roots compared to the percentage of African Americans in the United States.
Who are You?
We have to face the fact that it is necessary for us to find out our rots in oder to find out who we are. How do we know where we are going if we don’t know where we come from? It is unfortunate so many of us have lost files in our blood line, but now we may actually be able to figure it out. There are even ways to do your own research of your family tree, analog style, if you don’t trust these companies with your DNA. You can start with family stories, pictures, documents from family members and get organized. Find names, dates, and places of people and family events. I found it pretty cool to look on the back of pictures in old family albums, you’d be surprised the stuff your family writes on the back and it’s mostly names and dates. You are basically working from past to present, start with whichever side of the family you are most connected with; the matriarchal or patriarchal.
The United States (has) censuses from 1790 to now and what we have available to look at is only from 1940 going back. If people can find where their grandparents or great-grandparents were in 1940, then you can go every 10 years going back to 1940, then back to 1930. Once you find your great-grandfather in the 1940 census as a 5-year-old, then you can find who he was living with and put that in your tree record.
Family trees go really dark after five or six generations, a sad reminder that 150 years ago, Black people weren’t even considered people. Genealogists call this “the brick wall,” an obstruction in African American lineage that dates to 1870 when the federal Census began recording African descendants — 250 years after they were brought to the United States against their will. Before then, their lives existed only on paper as another person’s property. Now, unfortunately to get through this brick wall Black Americans have to depend on the names of their ancestors’ owners. However, you can find this through their owners
tax records, estate records, slave schedules and wills. It is a lot of work, but with the right patience and consistency, you can figure it out.