Oprah Winfrey, the American chat show host, startled a South African audience and baffled historians by claiming to be of Zulu ancestry.
She told 3,200 fans at her Live Your Best Life seminar in Johannesburg: “I went in search of my roots and had my DNA tested and I am a Zulu.”
But local historians say it is unlikely the television celebrity – who has a huge following in South Africa – is correct because there are few records the tribe have any connection to the African slave trade in North America.One historian is quoted as saying: “If there were Zulu people taken as slaves they would have most likely been taken eastwards by Arab traders or to South American colonies.”Those who ended up in North America, say in Mississippi where Miss Winfrey comes from, were mostly of West African origin”.
Leader of the seven-million-strong tribe, Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi also rubbished her claims.
He is quoted as saying: “I hate to tell Oprah this, but she is sorely mistaken”.
What better way to start off this new blog than with Oprah Winfrey herself! Almost ten years ago in 2005 she proudly proclaimed herself to be of Zulu descent, only to be told by Zulus themselves that this would be very unlikely given their understanding of their own history as well as the history of Trans Atlantic Slave Trade.
It seems it was mostly wishful thinking by Ophrah making her say she was a Zulu as it is known South Africa holds a special place in her heart. Later DNA testing in 2006, suggested a Kpelle/Liberia connection instead. This test was however based solely on her mt-DNA or maternal haplogroup which in fact only represents a very tiny part of our total ancestry (same goes for a person’s direct paternal lineage Y-DNA). As can be clearly seen in this graph below, going back only 6 generations, your direct maternal ancestor carrying the same mt-DNA would be 1 out of a total of 64 ancestors, going back further in time this number of ancestors will naturally increase even more.
Interestingly Oprah has been less vocal about claiming this particular lineage or proclaiming herself to be Liberian as far as I know. A prudent move as it has turned out that maternal haplogroups are in no way unique to ethnic groups but are often found in wide areas all over Africa. Actually besides the Kpelle from Liberia Oprah’s specific type of mt-DNA was also found to match samples from the Bamileke people of Cameroon, and the Nkoya people of Zambia. So obviously having a match with a particular sample out of an inherently limited database is no guarantee you are actually related to that particular ethnic group. No database will afterall ever be able to include ALL the thousands of ethnic groups in Africa nor necessarily be representative of the wideranging variety found among the groups which are included.
But, Eileen Krause, a post-lab quality assurance manager at Family Tree DNA of Houston, another genetics testing company, sided with Ely, saying a test result from mitochondrial DNA “doesn’t necessarily mean that you are from this tribe or that tribe.”
Linking individuals to a tribe is “something that concerns us,” Krause said. “We are not comfortable seeing a person get a result that might not be valid. We feel it’s unethical. We’re not going to wage war or anything like that, but we don’t like it.”
Oprah’s experience provides a good illustration of some of the basic topics I will be focusing on in this blog:
Many Afro-descendants in the Americas lack detailed knowledge about their possible ethnic/regional origins within Africa.
DNA testing can be confusing or even misleading if not interpreted correctly or without the proper context given.
To be clear I’m not trying to ridicule Oprah Winfrey in any way as I believe it is perfectly understandable for anyone how the brutish ordeal of slavery has erased the recollection of individual family trees tracing back to specific places within Africa for almost all Afro-descendants. Plus knowing how the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade brought together people from very different parts of Africa (from Senegal to Mozambique), it’s also easy to imagine how these slaves intermarried or had partners from different backgrounds and subsequently had ethnically mixed offspring who were forced to assume new identities across the generations.
Still I’m guessing generally speaking this lack of knowledge might partially also be the result of faulty education systems and the media not paying enough attention to this topic. The African continent is of course enormous and shows an overwhelmingly wide array of ethnic diversity. However that’s no excuse for not teaching people about something as basic as Africa’s geography let alone something as fundamental as its history, especially as it pertains to Afro-descendants.
To get back to the main question of this blog post. I am myself of Cape Verdean descent, and Cape Verde is already an West African island group. So in that sense I do consider to know my immediate African roots very well. However tracing back to the mainland is more complex because basically due to their colonial past Cape Verdeans are a potpourri of various Upper Guinean ethnicities as well as often having significant non-African admixture. Because the slave trade to Cape Verde has such a long history (starting in the late 1400’s) but also because most of its inhabitants (~80%) had a freed status already in the early 1700’s, it means that any mainland African geneflow and any actual mainland African born ancestors usually date back from a very long time ago on average. It can be said that the ethnogenesis of Cape Verdeans therefore preceded the formation of other Afro-diasporic nationalities/sub-groups by a significant timespan. This is why most Cape Verdeans usually don’t wonder that much about their deeper African roots as it’s too long ago in time and they consider themselves as being one fully fledged ethnicity with its own unique history/culture etc. already in place. I myself am however very much interested in knowing about my ancestral ethnic origins on the mainland of Africa and not just within Cape Verde.
In the absence of any documentation for the early colonial period it’s unfortunately practically impossible to identify ancestors born on the mainland, exceptions being those people who happen to have some more recent African lineage in their family. But these lineages would still only represent a minor part of their overall ancestry in most cases. I suspect the same can be said for many Afro-descendants in the Americas for whom traditional family tree research is often not an option because the records simply don’t exist to trace back all the way to Africa. I’m not saying the genealogical strategy is entirely impossible either – I’ve read about some amazing & inspiring findings – but as an alternative this blog will focus mainly on historical evidence derived from slave trade patterns as well as DNA testing.
And to some degree also cultural retention will be discussed. The fact that despite all the odds many Afro-descendants DID manage to retain a great deal of their African heritage or were influenced by it to create new Afro-inspired cultural forms in the Americas, does offer some valuable clues. However some ethnic groups were more successful in this process of African retention than others, sometimes even despite their relatively lower numbers. Also unlike DNA, cultural practices can be transmitted between unrelated people across generations. So there’s not a straightforward relation per se for individual cases.
The use of the word “tribe” to describe groups of people in Africa is being discouraged at some major news organizations, including the world’s largest, the Associated Press, where the international editor acknowledges that “the description of a conflict as tribal, rather than ethnic, may carry a pejorative meaning or evoke old stereotypes from the 19th century and early 20th century colonial era.”
That brings me to my next point, despite the title of this first post I’m personally not a big fan of the word “tribe” in this particular context. I believe it perpetuates an Eurocentric perspective on African ethnicity, even though I know many Africans themselves use the word as well. At least English speaking ones (would be interesting to know how this concept is described in Francophone or Lusophone Africa). However not so Festus Ngaruka, a Nambian author who wrote this article.
- Historical Distortion and Human Degradation: The “Tribe” as a Eurocentric Mentality rather than African Reality
Another reason I don’t favour using the word tribe is because I think it’s clouding the understanding of the true ethnic roots of Afro-Diasporans. Referring to the socalled Mandinka, Ashanti, Yoruba or Igbo people as being “ tribes” incl. an assumed tight-knit tribal membership with “pure” lineage, traditional leadership etc. is misleading when in fact they are better thought of as large and fluid ethnolinguistical groups bounded more so by cultural norms than genetics per se, only slightly less in number (over 30 million) than European ethnicities like the Spanish or Poles. And also like these Europeans being governed by national laws for the most part instead of by chiefs. Rather than some abstract tribal bond with millions of anonymous others I imagine it’s close kinship to one’s direct village clan which will still matter for most even in this modernday time when many African countries are rapidly urbanizing. I won’t pretend to know all the various ways Africans from allover the continent might selfidentify but automatically assuming it would be only on a tribal basis is clearly simplistic in this day & age so in this blog I will opt instead for the more neutral term ethnic group or ethnicity in future posts.
However you want to call it the question posed by this blog post “Which tribe am i?”is a flawed question already from the start because it doesn’t use a plural. In reality it’s practically impossible for any Afro-descendant to be of one single African ethnic origin only, it will always be multi-ethnic and almost always multi-regional origins within Africa instead. It’s perhaps more comfortable imagining our ancestry to be from just one place in order to “claim” it as part of our preferred hyphenated identity. But if hypothetically you would be able to fill in each and every name and birth place for your family tree going back to the 1700’s or even earlier in order to trace your African ancestry, you would find not only that one single mythical African born ancestor but several hundreds of them! The chances of them being born all in the same approximate region being very slim and even more so the probability of them being all from the same ethnicity. The following blog posts say basically the same thing but in greater detail:
- Fictional Family Tree incl. African Born Ancestors
- Can you really pinpoint DNA Ancestry in Africa to one tribe?
- How Many Ancestors Were On Those Ships?
As a closing (perhaps overly idealistic) thought I guess it would be nice if instead of blind staring on our imagined tribal affiliations we, being members of humankind, first of all start thinking of ourselves as being all part of the same “tribe”, regardless of actual backgrounds. Transcending tribalism and aspiring instead for meaningful connections with people close to us, like our family and friends but also our colleagues, neighbours, people living in our wider area or any other fellow countrymen sharing our social space.
I’m not trying to be judgmental but claiming a far away tribe based on a DNA test without actually having experienced their cultural traditions, knowing their language, being physically separated from them etc. seems fanciful in a way. Also at times it’s not going to be reciprocal as Oprah found out. Still knowing (part of) your deeper ancestral “roots” can be very liberating and adds to your selfknowledge which according to the ancients counts among the highest forms of wisdom. So surely that ‘s not to be dismissed either 😉
For people like me, who are fascinated by the Afro-Diaspora and its history, it’s also going to be highly interesting to know what binds Afro-descendants from various backgrounds and nationalities in their African ancestral breakdown. Seeing which type of ancestral components they might have in common but also also which mix might be more typical or distinct for their nationality or ethnic (sub)group. Research is still ongoing but most Afro-descendants might show the same ancestral “ingredients” ranging from Senegal to Mozambique but with varying proportions in accordance with the slave trade patterns to each destination on average. For a research survey based on 707 AncestryDNA results for 7 nationalities see:
Of course every one has unique family trees and so individual variation will be a given. The aim of this blog will be to provide informational sources, data, links, stories, thoughts or anything helpful to explore the ethnic roots of Afro-descendants (not per se restricted to the Americas) with missing links to Africa. I’m a newbie to this, but I will try my best to separate facts from personal opinions so that everyone can make up their own mind about whatever material I will be presenting. I’ll be very glad to receive any kind of feedback or discussion in the comment section so this can be a joint learning experience!
For a blog series which summarizes my take on Tracing African Roots:
- ROOTS.NL (S1E1): What can be learnt from AncestryDNA when trying to trace African ancestry?
- ROOTS.NL (S1E2): Is it possible to pinpoint a plausible ethnic origin for one’s African bloodline?
- ROOTS.NL (S1E3): True Colours: Dutch Race Relations