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    Discovering her past: Element uncovers her roots through African Ancestry DNA testing Tarik Moody


Discovering her past: Element uncovers her roots through African Ancestry DNA testing

todayFebruary 6, 2023 6 5

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The first decision I made was to do this. The second decision I made was to take you along with me. Why have you on my journey of self- discovery? Because I wanted to inspire. I wanted others to take their own journey into their family’s past and discover who they are. One of the great things about this particular journey was that it dispels the myth about black intelligence and capability. It allows you to be in the passenger seat into my personal past through science and culture but in a way that society, at one point, didn’t even think was possible.

If you’re listening to this in the United States, then you know my birth month, February is Black History Month. Every year during this month, I look back at all of the trials and accomplishments of black people in America. As a country, we have had horrible atrocities inflicted on us through our time, but we have always persevered. I’ve wondered for years, where would I have lived if my people hadn’t been stolen from the continent of Africa?

Well, now we find out together.

I sat down with Dr. Gina Paige, the co-founder of African Ancestry. Dr. Paige pioneered a new way of tracing African lineage using genetics, Paige travels the world, helping people demystify their roots. People gain a better understanding of who they are by knowing where they’re from. Dr. Paige has provided ancestry results to some of the most well-known entertainers in the world. People like Oprah Winfrey, John Legend, Chadwick Boseman, Spike Lee, Condoleezza Rice, and even the entire King family. And now she’s going to do the same for me.

If you are interested in tracing your African heritage, head over to Use the code word “BHM 23” at check out and receive a 10% discount. If your results or anything like mine, then you are in luck. African Ancestry takes a trip twice a year two different countries in Africa that offer dual citizenship. Luckily for me Sierra Leone is one of those countries. I will be getting my dual citizenship in the year 2024.

Element Everest-Blanks: Okay. So I am sitting here with the president and co-founder of African Ancestry, Dr. Gina Paige. I’ve seen your face a lot over the last year. It’s like every time I turn around, someone is finding out who they are, and I said I wanted to walk into 2023 with that same knowledge. Now, I have done a few of the DNA tests in the past, and they’ve given me general information, but it wasn’t until I heard the late great Chadwick Boseman talking on the Breakfast Club that I was convinced that I needed to go down this route. And then I saw the excitement of the two hosts, and then I saw it again, all the excitement of the cast and crew of Love & Hip Pop. And I said, you know what? I turned to my husband. I said, I’m going to do it. I’m going to go into 2023 knowing exactly who I am, where I come from, where I belong, who my tribe is. I need to reach out to Dr. Paige. So thank you for being here.

Dr. Gina Paige: Congratulations on making the decision.

EEB: It was a very easy one. I have a set of twin toddlers. I have seven sets of twins in my family. So I have in my mind said I was from a specific place that has the highest populations of twins on the planet, but I don’t know that. And I want to know, is this just luck in my family or is there something else at work? Tell me a little bit about how African Ancestry got started.

GP: Well, African ancestry was started by myself and my business partner, Dr. Rick Kittles. Dr. Kittles is a prominent geneticist who focuses on the genetics of black people around the world. And he worked on a project while he was at Howard University with the New York African Burial Ground, in the late ’90s. Or should say in the ’90s, they were constructing a federal building. When they excavated the land in Lower Manhattan, they found a cemetery. And so it was a cemetery of enslaved Africans. And so they had to halt excavation. And Dr. Kittles was part of the team from Howard that traveled to New York to do research on the burial ground. And his job was to determine the ancestry of the bones.

And so when the community found out that you could figure out where specifically in Africa we’re from based on bones, they were like, “Well, you should be able to do it for me because I’m living. It should be easier. I want to know.” And so there was this huge demand for the information, but he’s a genetics researcher, not a business person. And so he and I were introduced by a colleague and we partnered so that I could commercialize his research and make this technology available to black people everywhere. So that’s basically how it started. The community demanded it, and then we created the supply.

Dr. Gina Paige

EEB: So in some of your interviews, you talked about the fact that he wanted to know where he was from. And this is something that we all struggle with as African Americans. It’s always in the back of our mind. Who are we? Where are we really from? And if our lineage stops at slavery, then what does that say about us? We always will feel some sense of inferiority because we have this gaping hole in our history and our identity in our family’s identity. Correct?

GP: Yeah. I think you’re absolutely right. But I think you are actually representing for a group of black folks, I’ll say black Americans that were fortunate enough to know that our history didn’t start with slavery. So many of us don’t even know that. So many of us think that that’s the beginning of the story, and it’s because of many reasons. But I like to put it all together in what I call the “Africa void.” And the Africa void is a hollow state of being when you have no knowledge of or connection to Africa.

And so this Africa void exists because we weren’t taught, our traditional education didn’t teach us about Africa, at least nothing positive beyond nothing positive. It’s a poor country, kids starving corruption, walking around with lions and tigers in a jungle, just completely a negative and myopic perspective on the greatest continent on the planet. So because we have this Africa void, we don’t feel good about who we are. We don’t know who we are. We have colorism because we don’t interact well with each other. We don’t have culturally relevant education. We look at our brothers and sisters who are native Africans in negative ways, and they look at us in negative ways sometimes too. And then the larger society doesn’t even view us as people. We can be assassinated on the spot. And all of that traces back to our Africanness.

And so this is an exciting time. I’m so thankful to you that you decided our family needs to know, it’s not enough to know that we’re just some percentage African or that we come from West Africa, but what makes us who we are, what are the traditions and the values and the practices, and DNA is the tool that our company uses to unlock that information for people who look like us element.

EEB: I really do feel like some of the issues that we have in our community is because we don’t know who we’re carrying on, we don’t have that sense of belonging that we yearn for. We don’t have that sense of requirements in manhood and womanhood based on culture, based on where we’re from, based on expectations to carry on. And this is really one of the core reasons why I wanted to do this. My family has invested so much in learning about African American history, and I want to pass that on to my children, and I want to express how important that is. But I also want to express how important just cultural lineage is and what lives in their DNA.

So speaking of DNA, let’s talk a little bit about how I took this test and what this test is going to tell me. And is it my mother’s side, my father’s side? Can you explain to the listeners and the viewers how these tests happen?

GP: Yes. So this is it in a nutshell. I’m not the geneticist, so I’m going to explain it to you like I would explain it to your toddlers’ girl.

EEB: Okay.

GP: We each inherit 50% of our DNA from our mother and 50% from our father. So if your mother’s yellow and your father’s blue, then that means you’re going to be green, right?

EEB: That’s correct.

GP: You’re going to be a perfect mix of yellow and blue. Well, there’s a little bit of DNA that we inherit from our mother that doesn’t mix with the blue from our fathers. It stays yellow. It’s called mitochondrial DNA, mtDNA. It’s passed from mother to child, mother to child, mother to child for generations. That little tiny bit of yellow never changes. So you and your brothers and sisters have the same your mother. She and her brothers and sisters got it from your grandmother. She got it from her mother and her mother and her mother. You passed it to your children.

Your daughters will pass it to their children. So you see we have this informative record of your entire maternal branch of the tree, mother to mother, mother going back for 2000 years. Wow. It never changed.

EEB: So that’s what we’re testing.

GP: That’s what we’re testing. So you swabbed the inside of your cheek, and our lab unlocked the code of your mitochondrial, DNA, your yellow dot. Our company, has the largest collection of African yellow dots, if you will, the largest collection of African DNA lineages in the world. And so our scientists who are all black, they took your DNA, your mitochondrial DNA, and compared it to all of the DNA in our database to look for matches. And when we find a match in our database, you have to share the same maternal branch of your tree because it never changed.

EEB: Wow.

GP: And so that’s how the test works. So your result is the same for everybody in your family who comes from your grandmother, everybody who comes from your great-grandmother. It’s a gift that you’re giving to them as well as a gift that you’re receiving. And then it works similarly on the paternal side. So we can trace father to father because men only, biological men, have the same blue dot from their father that never mixes with the rest of the yellow. And so that Y chromosome, which we all learned about in high school, which is passed from father to son, father to son, father to son, it never changes. And so when a man traces that line, we can then figure out which people in which place he shared ancestry with 2000 years ago.

EEB: Wow, that’s incredible. It feels like even though people can interrupt your story, DNA-wise, genetically, you never can. That story is just fluid. And that story continues to live within us. So what happens to these DNA swabs once you guys are finished with them? Do you sell them? Do you keep them? What happens?

GP: Thank you for that question. We are the only company that does not sell or share our customer’s DNA. In fact, we destroy it. Our lab destroys it. So once we unlock your code and get the information, then the DNA is destroyed.

EEB: You’ve done this for so many people. So I will become an alumni of this incredible group. Can you just name a few people? Now I know this, but I want our listeners and viewers to know this. Do you name a few people who have taken advantage of African Ancestry?

GP: Well, you already mentioned our angel investor, Chadwick Boseman, who’s mentioned really helped put our company on the map. But it spans the gamut from Oprah Winfrey to Quincy Jones to Taraji P. Henson to the new mayor of LA, Karen Bass, to former congressmen John Lewis, to thousands of people who probably live in your city, not probably who live in your city, who may be your neighbors. We really have been fortunate that … You know who our very first person was to take the test?

Chadwick Boseman; Courtesy: Instagram

EEB: Who was the very first person?

GP: The very first celebrity type person was LeVar Burton.

EEB: Really?

GP: So some of us know him because of Roots.

EEB: Reading Rainbow or Roots.

GP: I know him because of reading Rainbows. Some of us know him because of Star Trek.

EEB: Star Trek.

GP: But when we first started in 2003, we’re celebrating our 20th anniversary right now.

EEB: Wow.

GP: We were being called the 21st Century Roots. And so we were like, “Okay, well wouldn’t it be awesome if we could tell Kunta Kinte where he was from?”

EEB: Absolutely.

GP: And so we reached out and he took the test and it was just like a dream-come-true for us. So we’ve got people all across the world who now know you are part of a family, the African ancestry family that in includes over a million people, girl. So

EEB: I’m amazing. This is a whole sorority fraternity that I’m being inducted into. And it’s a little different from the traditional sororities and fraternities because this is blood bonding. For us, this is a rekindling of our families that we’re torn apart, and there is nothing greater than when a family comes together for a reunion. So I excited to learn a little bit about myself. You are the very first interview I’ve ever had when I’m interviewing someone who knows more about me than I do.

GP: Wow.

EEB: So I’m excited.

GP: That’s quite an honor. My goodness.

EEB: I know. Okay, let’s go. Let me brace myself. I am ready. Okay.

GP: So as you know, we traced your maternal ancestry. Our analysis went back 500 to 2000 years, and we didn’t know what we were going to find. We didn’t know if we were going to find an African ancestor for you or a native American ancestor for you or a European ancestor for you. We have no idea until you take the test. In your case, we did find an African ancestor.

EEB: Okay.

GP: The people that you share ancestry with are historically master rice farmers. So they were captured and stolen from this country and brought to places like South Carolina and the Georgia Sea Islands. Because of their mastery of rice farming, they were taken to rice plantations. The people that you share ancestry with are one of three major ethnic groups in their country. They are found in the southern and eastern provinces of the country. The country is Sierra Leone.

EEB: Oh, wow.

GP: So Sierra Leone is a very small country on the west coast of Africa. It’s bordered by Guinea and by Liberia. It’s one of these countries that was originally colonized by the Portuguese, and they gave it the name Sierra Leone, which is a translation of mountain lion. It has evolved from the Portuguese for mountain lions, Sierra Leone. The people in Sierra Leone that you share ancestry with are called the Mende people, M-E-N-D-E. And the Mende may be familiar to you because they were on the Amistad. So the group of enslaved, or it captured Africans who were to be enslaved in Cuba on were taken on a ship called the Amistad, and there was a revolt. And then Sang Bay Pa, who is also known as Cinque, he had the ship turned and brought to the United States where ultimately they were granted their freedom. And so that legacy of that resistance and that revolution on the Amistad, it’s part of your heritage.

But one of the things that I really wanted to share with you about the Mende people, I have to put my glasses on for this because I want to make sure I say it right. I didn’t want to try and memorize it. So the men Day are an example of a non-Western pre-industrial society where historically, women took more political leadership positions relative to men. And in the pre-colonial era, they had female chiefs and female war leaders. One of those chiefs was named Madam Yoko, and she led one of the largest confederacy within the Mende region. She was recognized by the British as a paramount chief that doesn’t get any higher than that, a paramount chief in 1894. And the area that she ruled was eventually divided into 14 chieftains.

EEB: Wow.

GP: That’s how bad she was. She ruled an area that then required 14 rulers to take her place. And so there is a very rich and powerful legacy of tradition among the men day people. The men day women have these secret societies. You talked about sororities and fraternities. You also talked about bringing up your children. That’s what these secret societies do. They’re called Sande societies, S-A-N-D-E. And the Sande societies are for women to raise girls into the role of womanhood. They perform initiation rites, rites of passage for girls. And the leader of the Sande society is always an elder woman who is recognized as a Sowe. And so when we’re done, I know you’re going to be olive in-

EEB: Look, I’m trying to hold it together.

GP: And one of the things you’ll see, one of the most well-known African art images is a wooden mask called a Bundu mask, which represents the Sowe woman who is the leader of the women who initiate girls. And so I could go on and on, but I think this is a good start. You asked about other people. You have some famous Sierra Leonian cousins.

EEB: Ooh.

Dr. Maya Angelou; Courtesy: Instagram

GP: People like Isaiah Washington, the actor. People like Dr. Maya Angelou, people like Coretta Scott King. I mentioned Representative John Lewis. May he rest in power. He is also, we traced him to the Mende people of Sierra Leone. For those of us who like Neo Soul, Quest Love, we trace to the Mende, Black Thought. We also trace to the Mende. So your mende family tree spreads wide, girl.

EEB: That is so ironic because Black Thought is my favorite rapper.

GP: Oh, there you go.

EEB: He is my favorite rapper. Everybody who knows me knows that I do not waiver. It is a non-negotiable. He is my favorite rapper, and I’ve had so many great conversations about the roots and everything that they’ve done for music. So it is incredible that Quest and Black Thought are of the same tribe as I am. I feel like there’s a whole different conversation we can have now when all three of us are in the same room. So this is absolutely beautiful.

Now, let me ask you a question. Is there any reason for someone who would think that they have a different ethnic background to take this test? So I did see an interview that you did with Ebro and with his team, and there was a lot of surprises that came out of that. So if someone thinks that they’re just Caucasian or they’re just Puerto Rican, is there a reason for individuals of those ethnic or cultural backgrounds to take this test?

GP: So here’s what I’ll say: our test is focused on providing information, identity information for people of African descent. We trace ancestry though, so anybody who’s interested can take the test. However, if your ancestry result is not African, we are not going to give you probably any more information than you already had. We cannot be as specific with non-African lineages as we can be with African lineages. So for example, I discourage white people from taking the test. I don’t want to take their money when I know that chances are the results are going to go back to Europe. And there’s really not much more I can tell them than it’s European.

However, you mentioned Puerto Ricans, you mentioned Dominicans. I mean, you didn’t mention Dominicans, but when you think about Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, other groups across Latin Americas that are clearly a mixture of different ancestries, than there is value in this.

While we don’t know if that one branch will come back African, they definitely have African ancestry. And so I think it can be very insightful information for them. When we talk about people who live throughout the Caribbean, people who are Jamaican, people who are from Trinidad, they have very strong Cuba, wherever it is. They have very strong national identities, like Jamaicans are proud Jamaicans. They don’t need to know anything else. But I like to remind everybody that we were dropped, our ancestors were dropped in the Caribbean before they got here. And so we all come from Africa. If you are a brown skin person, let’s say we all come from Africa if you go back a hundred thousand years, I’m not talking about that. All of us that are descendants of the slave trade come from Africa and in recent history. And so I think there’s value in exploring that.

Element & Black Thought

EEB: I was thinking about if you are an American citizen and you consider yourself white, there are a lot of people that we both know who were passing, who married into white families and had these babies, and now they look completely European, but they might have that African ancestry. If you are one of those people, what type of message would you send to someone who is white but curious?

GP: Well, so I think what I would say to someone who is “white” but curious about their ancestry, if they don’t know where in their family tree their ancestry comes in, then our test may be looking for a needle in a haystack. But if they do know that it was their grandmother or their great-grandmother who was black, and they’ve just chosen not to celebrate that, I would say that when you are ready to explore more of who you are as a person, when you are ready to understand what are some of the traditions and values and practices that have informed who you are without you even really realizing it, then we would love at to have the opportunity to help you explore your Africanness.

EEB: Well, I would like to thank you for giving me a piece of who I am and filling in a hole for me that explains so much about my personality and who … I can’t wait to share this with my husband. He’s going to say, “Oh, that makes sense then.” I have this leadership personality. I take a strong stance against things I don’t believe in. And I’m very assertive in situations. And when I feel like something is right, we need to go with what’s right. And when I feel like something is wrong, I will speak up for people. And situations that I feel like don’t benefit us as a group, as people of color and specifically as black people. And in the past, that has been something that has been a challenge.

But I know where that comes from. I know where that comes from now. I know that it is in me to speak up, and my daughter has that. She has that fire in her that if she sees her wrong, she’s going to stand on it and she’s going to stand on it firm and she’s going to see it through. So that gives me some sense of pride. Now instead of shying away or attempting to adjust that to be palatable for other people in situations, I know that it’s just who I am.

GP: I love that.

EEB: So that feels good to know.

GP: Thank. And if I could just add one thing, I want to make sure I tell you this, that DNA, that mitochondrial DNA is in every cell of your body, is in every cell of your daughter’s body. And that DNA has memory. It is the exact same DNA as your maternal ancestor who was captured and stolen and then who endured all of that horrific middle passage, auction blocks, plantation living, everything. Jim Crow segregation. It’s that DNA lives in you. So even for people who don’t know where they’re from, like you do now, they’re not part of the family yet, know that the ancestors live in us and every day, it’s our obligation to honor them. And so you chose to do that without even realizing it.

You chose to do that through your personality and through the positions that you take and through protecting those who can’t speak for themselves. And leading, you chose to do that. And it was no mistake because it was in there. And so all the work that you’ve done so far has been in honor of the ancestors. And I cannot wait to see how you will honor them going forward now that you will be able to learn so much more about who they are and what they were about.

So welcome to the African Ancestry family. Thank you for allowing us the honor of tracing your DNA and finding your roots element.

EEB: Thank you so much, Dr. Gina Paige. You have given me a gift that no one else could, and I am eternally grateful.


Written by: Element Everest-Blanks

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