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Study Bursts Myth of Indian Genes in African Americans

Since I’ve been living in the United States, I’m yet to meet an African American who hasn’t told me that they have some kind of…

Since I’ve been living in the United States, I’m yet to meet an African American who hasn’t told me that they have some kind of Indian stemma in their ancestry. I have met many African Americans (even dark-skinned ones) who have proudly told me that their great grandparents (whose pictures they have allegedly seen) were American Indians!

Well, the genetic study found that “There was ‘very little’ evidence for American Indian genes among African-Americans.”

The team of researchers led by University of Pennsylvania professor of genetics Sarah Tiskoff trekked across Africa for over 10 years collecting samples to compare the genes of various peoples.

According to the researchers, “about 71 percent of African-Americans can trace their ancestry to western African origins.” This is, of course, an all-too-obvious historical and phenotypic fact. The earliest African presence in the Americas is decidedly directly traceable to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.

By all historical accounts, this inhuman trade took place primarily along the West African coast and specifically around what is today Nigeria. So it’s not surprising that 71 percent of African Americans trace their ancestral provenance to West Africa.

What is surprising to me, though, is that, according to the study, only between 13 percent and 15 percent of African Americans have a European ancestry. I thought the percentage was a little higher than that. In fact, previous genetic studies had suggested that a little over 20 percent of Black Americans have a European ancestry. Well, as they say, appearances can be deceiving. We live and learn.

Of course, as the study itself confirms, there a few African Americans who may trace their roots to parts of Africa other than West Africa. For instance, it’s a historical fact that a sizable number of Africans were also enslaved from such central African countries as Angola and the Congo. And there was a sizable black South African population that emigrated to the United States in the early 1800s, not as slaves but as indentured servants.

It is these disparate black African populations that have fused, over many centuries, to constitute the bulk of what we call African Americans today.

Having said that, I have often been amused by the farcical, self-hating, my-grandparents-were-Indian fiction that many African Americans cherish about their ancestral origins. But just why did the myth of an Indian origin for African Americans, absurd as it is, start and spread?

Well, my sense is that the narrative about the consanguinity of African Americans with American Indians is less about historical facticity than it is about a rhetorical strategy to achieve two inter-related goals: to run away from the shame that identification with “primitive” Africa inspired in early America and to share in the symbolic capital that comes with being identified as the original inhabitants of the United States.

Well, my attitude is: if the fable of an Indian ancestry helps our estranged cousins in America to negotiate their complex identities in the ethnic cauldron of their new home, no one should begrudge them. After all, most collective identities are the products of grand fictions that have been sanctified over several years.

For example, the Hausa people have their exotic Bayajida myth of origin, which says that they are descended from some ancient, chivalrous Iraqi adventurer. The Yoruba have their Lamurudu/Oduduwa fiction, which traces their ancestral roots to Egypt.

My own people in Borgu cherish their Kisra myth of origin, which says we are descended from some Arab infidel who fled Mecca to Borno and then to what is today Borgu after purportedly rebelling against the prophet of Islam. And, of course, the Igbo, not wanting to be left out, have recently embraced a myth of origin that locates their provenance to Israel. Ibo (Igbo), they say, is the corruption of “Hebrew.”

Although all extant scientific evidence points to Africa as the birthplace of humanity, black Africans are enamored of myths of origins that locate their provenance to places other than Africa.

Perhaps, African Americans are also enacting their own version of this black African self-hatred by tracing their ancestral origins to American Indians.