Maternal DNA Links Black Women to Our African Ancestry

For Black families whose generational links have been severed, maternal DNA is a lasting connection back to their African tribes.

Grandmother and granddaughter cuddling on couch
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In so many different levels of schooling, kids and adults alike have been tasked with tracing back their family trees and sharing their history with their classes. Many Black Americans, however, don't have the luxury of knowing the lengths of our own family heritage.

"We're the original victims of identity theft," says Gina Paige, the president and co-founder of African Ancestry, Inc.. "Our ancestors were stolen and then on the auction block here. They were torn apart." Paige stopped by :BLACKPRINT, the Black employee affinity group for Dotdash Meredith, Kindred's parent company. There, she shared in a DNA ancestry reveal presentation.

And that's where ancestral DNA tests come in. traces the lineage—either maternal, paternal, or both—of Black people back to Africa, pinpointing country, region, and tribe by using DNA.

The African Ancestry team specifically helps both Black men and women trace their lineage from all over Africa by using their maternal or paternal DNA. Every person in the world has DNA that they inherit from their mother, which doesn't change over generations. And since the genetic code stays the same as it's passed down from mother to child, it gives us an informative record of our maternal history that goes back to the period before the transatlantic slave trade.

Using their database of African codes from maternal-inherited DNA, which is the largest in the world and spans 40 countries and over 400 ethnic groups, the African Ancestry team compares a person's genetic code with its match, which means they've discovered where your maternal ancestor was in the past 2,000 years. While the team can also pull DNA from the paternal side, only men inherit the paternal DNA that doesn't change (the Y chromosome).

Paige notes that discovering this history helps Black families link DNA to memory. "Your nose probably comes from one of your great-great-grandparents, that memory is there," she says.

"Your hair texture comes from another one of them, and your smile comes from another one, and your personality comes from several of them," she says. "I tell corny jokes like my father; I get on my mother's nerves like my father. And I don't try, I can't help it, it's genetic. DNA has memory, and all we are doing is unlocking the memory because we don't have the benefit of oral and written records to have passed those memories down to us."

The findings not only help us find a sense of belonging, but they also set the record straight on the true structure of Black households. "The image that society wants to paint of the Black family is that it's a single-parent household. That it comes from single-parent households, and that Black fathers don't play a role in the family," Paige says. "We don't just tell you that you're from Nigeria: We get specific, like the Fulani or the Mende in Sierra Leone or the Mandinka in Senegal. Now you get to learn about the role of the matriarch in these families, the role of the patriarch."

From here, Black parents can teach their children about their family lineage from a young age and enhance their own educational experience—starting at home.

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