Do You Know What Part of Africa You’re from?

By Kimberly Perette…for Zach

We were sitting around the table at a restaurant and a discussion of everyone’s 23andMe came up.

“Dad always thought he was Swedish, but found he was part Italian,” Caprice said.

I’m part this and that everyone declared, proud that they were this type of European or the other. They never said they were part black except for Zach. He always acknowledges his blackness. I don’t even know how to acknowledge blackness anymore because I don’t know what it is.

I sat there like every other person who identifies as African American not willing to participate in the discussion because if you’re African American and dark you are just black in the eyes of others. Or so it seems to me. If you say, I’m part Sephardic Jew and Scottish as well as Native American and African, people look at you like you’re crazy. Aren’t you just black, a descendent of slaves? They don’t say it, but that’s what they’re thinking and you know they are thinking that because you used to think it and you hated when white people went off on their heritage of being English and Scottish and French or whatever European they needed to be, while you just sat there thinking, I’m just black, a descendent of slaves and you felt embarrassed and inferior to them because they thought they knew and they felt sorry for you because they were so lucky to be descended from the superior white race while you were descended from the inferior black race. Some people have even told me outright, “My family used to own slaves,” which is something you should never say to a black person from the South. Instead of going into a dialog, that it was probably unlikely because an enslaved person was expensive, I just say, “I forgive you.” Well that’s all behind us now as we have DNA testing.

“Do you know what part of Africa you are from?”  Zach asked.

“No,” I replied. I could have explained farther, but didn’t want to go into a history lesson. 

“I’m going to do my DNA to see all the parts. I will do the test that goes back for 10,000 years,” I finally came out with.

“10,000 years!” Everyone exclaimed, puzzled. I nodded, again not willing to expound. But I will explain here. This is for you, Zach.

Parts of a whole

First of all, all of us did not come here as slaves. Some of us were free people of color as was my great grandfather Jasper Scott. True, I have ancestors who were enslaved people. These ancestors are hard to trace. Because we hail from Louisiana it is assumed that the African part of my ancestors were bought over through the middle passage. Many of these enslaved people were captured by other African tribes as a result of war. The institution of slavery has been in existence for 1000’s of years. Both African and European people were enslaved. The Muslim people were the greatest procurers of slaves. They enslaved everybody including over a million Europeans. The current discourse is that we have to look at the concept of slavey in a broader sense than just how it pertains to the United States of America. This leads to a deeper discourse on the notion of blackness and whiteness within the context of our culture here. I have made certain assumptions about where my original African ancestors came from. Though I haven’t done the DNA test yet, I think some of my ancestors may have come from West Africa as I am a carrier of the Sickle Cell trait. The sickle cell trait is a gene that provides a survival advantage against malaria fatality over people with normal hemoglobin in regions where malaria is endemic. It is a prime example of natural selection, evidenced by the fact that the geographical distribution of the gene and the distribution of malaria in Africa virtually overlap.  According to wikipedia, whole genome sequence analysis has identified a single origin of the sickle trait, with one ancestral haplotype meaning a group of genes from one parent. This haplotype is thought to have originated in the Sahara during the Holocene Wet Phase around 7,300 years ago. Sickle cell variants descended from this ancestral haplotype comprise five haplotypes named after ethnolinguistic groups, the Arabian/Indian, BeninCameroonCentral African Republic/Bantu, and Senegal variants. So perhaps some of my ancestors come from here.

According to my family’s oral history, we also have Jewish ancestors which I thought was strange. What Jews were in Louisiana? I thought this was unlikely until I did further research and found that Sephardic Jews showed up in Louisiana about 300 years ago and they did in fact settle in the region of Louisiana where I am from. They were merchants and, low and behold, my great great grandfather was a merchant. Here’s a bit of background on Jews in Louisiana.

In the early 1700s, Sephardic traders journeyed up from the Caribbean and became the first Jews to settle in Louisiana. The small community thrived despite of the infamous “Black Code” of 1724 that officially expelled all Jews from the French colony.

A second wave of immigration (1820-1870) deposited German peddlers in virtually every small town in the state. Jacob Bodenheimer, one of the first Jews to settle in northern Louisiana, came to America as a castaway. He encouraged other German Jews to follow and soon there was a substantial Jewish presence in the area. Because they were among the first of any faith to settle this region, northern Louisiana has experienced little anti-Semitism.

The arrival of Eastern Europeans marked the third great wave of immigration (1870-1920). During this period’s high water mark–the first decade of the 20th century–Louisiana found itself with a substantial Russian and Polish community. The traditionalism of these newcomers contrasted sharply with the assimilated French and Germans. They often were a source of embarrassment to those Jews who had worked so hard to blend into the styles and customs of the gentile world. They maintained their traditions, however, and established thriving orthodox communities throughout the state. There has been some narrative in our family that we are descended from Polish Jews.

As far as native American ancestors are concerned, I’m not sure. There is no oral history on that. Nor is there history on where the Scott surname came from. Scott is from an English and Scottish surname that referred to a person from Scotland or a person who spoke Scottish Gaelic. Also, we have recently unearthed an ancestor with the name of McCormick! McCormick is a family name that originated in Ireland. McCormack means “son of Cormac.”

So the answer to your question is an interesting one. Shall we go on this journey together? We will continue this journey with DNA tests which do different things. 

We’ll start with because I’ve started a family tree on line there with my cousins uses autosomal DNA which is best for matching genealogical and personal ancestors. From there, we can move on to an international data base that uses Y-DNA, which follows the father’s ancestry  and mtDNA, which follows the mother’s. I look forward to this journey. I’m sure it will prove to be interesting.