How African Americans Use DNA Testing to Connect with Their Past

If you are European-American (white), your ancestors wrote the rules and kept the records. They were a part of the white power structure that allowed and supported slavery and Jim Crow.

Your records are relatively easy to find.

If you are descended of the African Diaspora, your family is in splinters, and your history is obscured by an official view of you and yours as 3/5 of a human being (check Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3 of the US Constitution).

Records before 1870, for people of color, are frequently “the ungettable get.” Before that, the nation was at war or practicing slavery and was, at best, recording the existence of the enslaved as taxable chattel, identified by gender and age (no names) on Slave Schedules. They had no surnames.

Enslaved persons were also, rarely, listed by name in extant wills that conveyed their ownership between slavers’ family members. Free persons of color, who are listed in Federal Censuses in 1850 and 1860 by first and last name and shown in family groups, were rare.

DNA is a fun extension of a hobby for most white researchers, but for black researchers (and adopted researchers, fostered researchers or researchers with some element of unclear parentage), DNA is ESSENTIAL to building a family tree. Genetic genealogy is not a hobby or “fun” for those in minority American culture, it is compulsory. Majoritarian American populations should remember this as they work.

It’s easy to say “I’m Swedish-American” or “I’m Irish-American” with a degree of certainty supported by documentation of immigrant ancestors’ life activities. Passage records, naturalization papers, and even censuses show white researchers’ national origins, emigration dates, and even cities of European origin.

To be “African-American” is to say “my ancestors were kidnapped from the second-largest continent on the planet, but I don’t know when or where. I have no national or tribal identification. I have no quantifiable or qualifiable roots.” To test DNA in the face of that enormous, gaping hole is to say “science, please help show me who I am.”

For some great information, please read How African Americans Use DNA Testing to Connect With Their Past in The Atlantic, a wonderful digital magazine.

If you are white and you are utilizing DNA testing, please know that existing records are much better for you than for your black cousins. If you are approached by a black cousin on Ancestry, My Heritage or, please work with your cousin to identify your common ancestor. Your assistance means the world. So does your education about the real differences between white and black genealogical research strategies.

Exciting Announcement: Podcast!

We are working on a new podcast! It will feature nitty-gritty information about best use of different types of resources in online research, best practices, and best evidence (aka genie hygiene).

It will help you to go from paper to people, to gain an understanding of your ancestors’ lives and make them less abstract than a line on a census record in scary handwriting.

No timeframe yet, but I’d say keep your eyes and ears open for a debut this Summer.

Digitally Gathering Family Lore

Over Christmas, Hanukkah and New Year’s, I’d like to encourage everyone to take advantage of family gatherings, or technology, or both, to talk with family elders and record valuable stories about your ancestors.

Ways to do this:

• Write a list of open-ended questions to start discussions, like “What do you remember best about life in Peoria?” or “What was Grandmother Pickell like? What stories did she tell?”

• Use your phone or a digital recorder to record storytelling at the dinner table

• Schedule a little time for storytelling with your elders away from the noise and bustle of kids and cooking and the opening of presents

• Use a call recording app while speaking on your cell phone with relatives

• Use multiparty calling and record your calls so that far-flung relatives can tell their memories of specific stories together – collaboration can aid memory

• Use Facetime, Skype, Google Hang or a similar program or app in combination with a recorder app to get video as well as audio when talking with relatives in other locations

And above all, name and identify all mp3 and mp4 recordings, and back them up to the cloud immediately!! You can edit them and add them to your family tree later, preserving family lore for future generations. Don’t let a spilled gravy boat destroy your work.

Automatic Call Recorder for Android

Automatic Call Recorder for Android

I recommend a call recorder app like this one. It doubles as a voice recorder, allows file naming and notes for each recording.

A most merry and blessed Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and Solstice to all – may peace be with you and yours at this special time. And Happy New Year!! May 2017 bring advances to us all in our knowledge and in our capacity to help others.

What Are You Learning from ROOTS on The History Channel?


What are you learning from ROOTS? What did you already know? What do you think viewers SHOULD know? I’d really like answers to this!!

I have learned that song has always been an instrument of rebellion, from singing in a native tongue to communicate, to using the appearance of obedience and even (celebration? I don’t know the word I want but it’s something that whites would interpret that way) in English to give one another support and pass messages.

The true craft and intelligence involved in survival is a lesson that everyone could take, I think. But it proves what I’ve always known – that being a slave or being slave-descended is a testament to surviving the extremes that many others have not encountered. For those of us who don’t live in that descent or space, it is a challenge to understand but a necessity to respect and support.

Another thing that is played out before my eyes in ROOTS is the constant watchfulness, the endurance necessary to get through a day, and the PTSD that is now understood to be generational as a result of this constant vigilance against violence.

I was just witness to a White Supremacist rampage in a black genetic genealogy group. This supremacist claimed to be due reparations because his European ancestors were forced into military servitude. He said it was the same thing as African-Americans deserving reparations. In so doing, he mocked the African-American experience. This is an apples-and-oranges comparison. All forced duties and enslavements are bad things, for certain, but the experience of Black America is unlike anything else.

I watch this show, ROOTS, seemingly just a TV show, and I learn at greater depths the generational trauma still suffered by black America exists in the DNA, and that this has already been proven scientifically. I can understand it at a distance though I have not experienced it genealogically.

ROOTS episodes 1 and 2 are available online and on Roku; the remaining two episodes are showing on Lifetime, A&E and The History Channel.

All of these things are valuable learning experiences. What do you say?

Best Practices: Ancestry Profiles, pt. 2

We now return to the fun that is Being a Good Citizen on Ancestry. We left off on the top of the page marked Member Profile. We’ll pick up from there.

One of the greatest contributions you can make to the Ancestry community is to let people know what you’d be willing to do for them and who, overall, you are.

Scrolling further down the Member Profile screen from where we left off in the last post, you’ll see the giant orange button to click so that you can edit your profile. When you click on it, you get this view.

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Each section has its own grey EDIT button. We’ll go section by section.

Click on the edit button in the box directly below the orange SWITCH TO PUBLIC VIEW button. It opens the section called Help Other Ancestry Members. Indicate here whether you feel comfortable helping others with their research. This isn’t necessarily about building trees with names – the options include:

  • Retrieve a record from a local repository (government, church, society, etc.)
  • Look up and copy a document from a local library
  • Take pictures of tombstones from a local cemetery
  • Take pictures of local buildings or other landmarks
  • Offer advice about research
  • Translate a document or offer other translation help

Tick the boxes for all of the things you can do for others. Remember, genealogy is a cooperative endeavor, and any help you can give others will come back to you. When you’ve indicated what (if any) you can do for others, hit SAVE.

Next, hit EDIT on the area titled About. You’ll get a pop-up window with three tab options.

Tab 1 is Personal Info. It’s pretty self-explanatory. Add everything from the drop-down menus that will be of help to others. If you don’t want to reveal much about yourself, that’s fine. The options include:

  • Gender
  • Age Group
  • Education
  • Employment
  • Occupation
  • Languages
  • Lineage
  • Religion

The most important for other researchers is Languages and Lineage, but all are helpful. Hit save and re-open the About section.

Click over to the next tab inside the pop-up window, marked Family History Experience. These are judgment calls, and they really do help other researchers decide whether or not to connect with you. They include:

  • Family History Experience (choose Beginner through Professional Genealogist)
  • Researching since (fill in the year you started your genealogical research, even if it was
  • How often? (indicate how often you visit to work on your tree, check mail, etc)

Hit save. Re-open the About section and click on the last tab, Websites. Here you can add your own genealogy blog or website, and all of your favorite research sites, like Find-a-Grave, the Library of Congress, etc.

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The last really important section is the Research Interests section. This is where you can tell others what you’re interested in finding, what you’re working on at the moment, or what your biggest challenges are.

Click on the grey EDIT button and you will receive a screen that allows you to make an initial entry. Here are the options:

  • Last Name (the last name you are researching, like Smith or Johnson)
  • Location (in the form “Chicago, Illinois, USA”)
  • Date Range (enter the date range you are researching, starting year to ending year)
  • Please include any other useful information (add things in this field about the family you’re seeking, or possible locations – whatever you may already know)
  • Share this Information? (check yes here if you want people to be able to see on your profile who and what you’re seeking).

Hit save when you’ve completed the fields. You can add as many research interests as you’d like. Once they’re added, you can edit them by clicking on the little pencil at the end of each line, or delete lines by clicking on the red X at the end of each line. When you’re done, return to the Member Profile with the link on the upper left.

Those are the major points about self-identification that are minimum necessities of good etiquette on Ancestry. There are more best practices to come, but those are for another day.

Best Practices: Ancestry Profiles, pt. 1

There are some things I’ve been seeing for years, and others I’ve been seeing more and more lately, that make me crazy while working on Ancestry. All of them are due to a lack of knowledge or courtesy on the part of amateur researchers, and all of them can be solved with a little applied effort.

Increasingly, Ancestry members are contacting one another and relying on one another to work together and to find ties and relationships not only using conventional, documentary genealogy work but also using DNA results. Without adequate identifying information, more seasoned or purposeful researchers have a difficult time deciding who to contact and whether the effort of reaching out to a particular Ancestry member is worthwhile.

Starting with your profile, you can let people know who you are, what you’re looking for, the kind of help you can provide others, and, indeed, whether you’re alive or dead.

Your Profile

When you join Ancestry, you are asked to create a profile. Here is mine:

1 ancestry profile

Here’s your checklist for making a profile that provides enough information for you to be helpful to others in their research.

  1. Name – use your own name as your username. Women, use your maiden name. If you don’t want to use your exact name, use one that includes your last name somehow. The point is that your username should identify you to others who are searching. I have been able to find numerous cousins, both with and without DNA, because they used family names as usernames. If you’re not willing to give out that kind of information, you should ask yourself whether you want to use Ancestry at all.
  2. Location – I made mine very specific because I live in a town that my ancestors founded, I am a member of the local Historical Society, and I am willing to do local documentary research and take photos for others. If you don’t want to be that specific, leave it at your state, or even your country. But regardless, put SOMETHING in the location.
  3. Photograph – I CAN’T stress this enough. Flowers and puppies and kitties are just cray-cray adorbs for Facebook and Instagram, but this is a data-driven research site. USE A REGULAR,  WELL-LIT, CURRENT PICTURE OF YOUR OWN FACE. Researchers want to see what YOU look like. A picture of your boat or your favorite horse doesn’t tell anybody anything, and an ill-lit photo of you and your family doesn’t tell anybody anything relevant, either. Use this same photograph elsewhere. I generally use the same profile photo for Facebook and Ancestry – in fact, someone in a Facebook research group saw my photo in the group and on Ancestry and recognized me. She put me together with a cousin, simply because she saw and recognized the image.
  4. Information section – use this to let people know what is important to you about your research. If you have completed Ancestry DNA and added the raw data to, post that kit number, as I did. This allows researchers to test their DNA against yours on GEDmatch and gain better information before they contact you.

This is the first and most important section of the profile. I’ll be back with more in a future post.

A GREAT Site and Group for Reparational Genealogy

colorful africaI just stumbled into something wonderful! It turns out that I have African-American cousins. Not surprising, but very good news. In connecting with them on Facebook by way of, I was invited to join an FB group called DNA Tested African Descendants. I hope to find more cousins there. It is a closed group, but if you are African-American and are utilizing DNA testing, you should apply. It is a very professional and focused group.

Their goal is to help African-Americans test their DNA from as many different companies as is feasible, post the raw data from all tests on FTDNA, and, and then work together to find relations both here and in Africa.

That’s the exciting part – Africans from various nations have tested, and this group has helped people to find the African nations of their forbears!

This is the essence of Reparational Genealogy. In this case, it is mostly Blacks helping Blacks, but White cousins and Reparational Genealogists seem to be welcome.

The group also has a wonderful website, and I urge you to visit it. It is also called DNA Tested African Descendants.

This is the future of genealogy, friends. We must work together to find the answers for families who were systematically destroyed and then repeatedly torn apart for over 400 years. It is the best form of reparation possible – restored identity.

Learn World History Through Genealogy: India

If you’re American, how much do you actually know about the history of the Indian subcontinent (Indian and Pakistani history)? Do you know what Partition was, or when it happened? It’s an enormous part of 20th-century history. Ripple effects populate the world news every night.

I am a visual learner. I read, but I prefer to be told stories through documentaries and genealogy shows. And I am hooked on Who Do You Think You Are. I watch the UK version, the Australian version, and the US version (thank you, YouTube!). This is how I acquire my historical knowledge best – with personal, memorable stories.

I have just watched a shattering episode from the current, 12th season of the UK series. In it, Anita Rani, a British journalist and television host, returns to India to learn about her family. It taught me some of the very human aspects of what could otherwise have remained a cold, historical event.

This is why we research genealogy! Please, take an hour out and watch this incredible episode. It is moving and educational and tells a tale of why we genealogists are such addicts, such tireless (some might say tiresome) devotees to this work.

Genealogy as Reparations

familytreeI’ve been researching my family history, and the histories of others’ families, for 35 years. Mine is straightforward: I am made up of stock that came from Germany north over the last 1000 years. Genealogical DNA testing helped me to prove that, but the increasing proliferation of online genealogical resources made the DNA result an anti-climax.

I wanted a challenge, so I started doing genealogy for a friend from junior high who has always self-identified as Black. He was surprised when he got his genealogical DNA test back and found that he was more Western and Northern European than he ever could have expected. In fact, it stunned him and challenged his self-identification for a while. I offered to do his work with him in conjunction with the information he was gaining from distant relatives he found via DNA. He took me up on it, but only after some months. He needed to let the shock wear off before he could accept the shocks to come.

As a White person with long-term exposure to little and big genealogical surprises, I couldn’t understand why his genetic discoveries were hurtful to him. As we discussed it, I came to understand that his self-identity was 0% White. He was African and Native American, and nothing else, as far as he knew. His sense of family history did not involve rape. Since the DNA didn’t lie, he had to face up to this ugliness existing in his family’s background, and to his undeniable descent from humans who purchased other humans and treated them like chattel.

I took it for granted that he’d find these things. But that was a White perspective. I didn’t understand that his pride was assaulted. I had to examine my lack of understanding and learn a new lesson or two in compassion, White Fragility and the fact that I had no notion of what it is to be Black in a White-created and White-run society.

Contemporaneously, my friend and I witnessed a bigoted, hate-filled political surge among our old schoolmates that horrified and disgusted us both. I couldn’t believe the comments I read daily on Facebook. In response, some of my Black friends withdrew from Facebook even after blocking White Supremacist (former) friends because their hurt was so deep. I felt the need to fight this, so after blocking the truly vicious, I started to read and internalize hard truths about my own racism, prejudice, bigotry, White Privilege, and above all White Fragility as defined by Dr. Robin DiAngelo.

Some of my ancestors were Dutch and British-descended slave owners. One 3x great-grandfather fought for the Confederacy. I was raised to believe that I was 100% Northern, and learning of my slavery roots was horrifying. I was embarrassed and ashamed. I felt guilty. Then, I got over myself. I started to think in terms of reparations.

Guilt in 2015 for the actions of others 200 years ago is self-indulgence. I am not responsible for the actions of past generations. I can, however, change and improve myself now. My actions in the present and future govern my role in reparations.

I can’t provide social justice. I can’t provide financial, educational or employment reparations. But, as a genealogist, I can give people of color back the families that my ancestors and the ancestors of my fellow White Americans brutalized and tore asunder. I call this Reparational Genealogy. And working together with your client is the key.

I believe that Reparational Genealogy is the next wave in truthful movement forward toward honest (if difficult) discussions about race. The first step in White America’s acceptance of its own privilege is to accept responsibility and find ways to improve the future. Whites benefit today from 400 years of Black enslavement, and Blacks still suffer despite all of the legal battles they’ve fought and won. The least they should have is access to their ancestry.

If we are aiming for wholism, for parity in our society, then we have to consider things like giving those whose ancestry was destroyed and obscured the chance to look back over their shoulders and see the strong people who formed them. My friend’s genealogy shows he has a bloodline that goes back to Lancashire in England, some Iroquois Nation blood, and the blood not only of the enslaved but of free men who fought in the Colored Troops of Maryland for the North. He even has Viking DNA markers. Initially this diversity upset him a lot, but I feel like the work that we’re doing together (and we confer almost every night as I do the research) is helping him to accept his European self as well as to see the amazing strengths of body and mind that have been handed down to him by his sub-Saharan ancestors.

Everybody deserves this. I believe in this wholism with all of my heart. So, anybody with the skills, jump in. Not everyone can get on “Who Do You Think You Are?” or “Finding Your Roots,” should it return to air.

As a friend said to me, “the things lost cannot be replaced. This should only be about righting the wrongs in the best way possible should those who are living it find it valuable.” Therefore, Reparational Genealogy should be available to those who want it but not forced upon anyone.

I am calling upon every genealogist in this country of every ethnicity to dedicate a portion of his or her work to providing free genealogical research to any person of color who wants it. It’s not about charity, or bleeding hearts. It’s not about self-righteousness or personal glory. And it’s really not about being a savior or about ramming this “solution” down peoples’ throats and expecting gratitude. It’s about making services available and being prepared to do the work.

Genealogists, advertise on your web site that you’re going to do Reparational Genealogy. Get into Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness on Facebook and put out the word. Set realistic goals for how many clients you’ll take at a time, or what your pro bono percentage is if you are a professional. Make yourself available, and see what happens.

Let the work begin.