For African-American root-seekers, the reveal can be transformative

“DNA Sierra Leonean” Isaiah Washington worked to highlight the importance of Sierra Leone to descendants of slaves

Published January 10, 2016 2:00PM (EST)

Isaiah Washington   (AP/Richard Shotwell)
Isaiah Washington (AP/Richard Shotwell)

Excerpted from "The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation After the Genome"

Washington has variously referred to himself as an American, an African American, a “DNA Sierra Leonean,” and an “American–Sierra Leonean,” or simply as a “Sierra Leonean.”

In the last decade, a spate of genealogy-themed, unscripted (or “reality”) television shows, including Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s African American Lives, have highlighted the ease and immediacy with which the roots endeavor can be undertaken, be it carried out for a root-seeker by another individual (e.g., a certified genealogist) or a company (such as Gates’s African DNA, which sells traditional and genetic genealogy services). On this novel family-history landscape, the apex of the roots journey is “the reveal,” a familiar concept in reality television. In this case, new or surprising information, often based upon genetic test results, is presented to a subject who expresses astonishment or elation or both, before an audience. Thus, in the post-Haley era, the practice of root-seeking might be said to involve not simply the reconstruction of a familial narrative, but also one’s response to this genealogical account in the presence of an audience. The public reveal reminds us is that the work of reconciliation and repair that genetic ancestry is used to accomplish is always also about a larger group, be it an audience or a community. For the descendants of slaves, this form of public witness may also be a political occasion—a demand that others make note of the sobering historical dynamics out of which some American family trees grew.

The reveal is an essential element of genealogy-themed television shows such as Motherland: A Genetic Journey (2003), Motherland: Moving On (2006), and Who Do You Think You Are? (2004– ) on the BBC, and in the United States, celebrity-driven shows such as African American Lives (2006), Oprah’s Roots (2007), African American Lives II (2008), Faces of America (2010), Finding Your Roots (2012–), all on PBS, and NBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? (2010– ). Media scholar June Deery writes that the reveal functions “both to uncover and to display . . . to a dual audience of subject and TV viewers.” With televised genealogy shows, furthermore, what is uncovered or displayed—most often to a rootseeker via a host—is information about a notable predecessor, a significant historical event, or unexpected affiliations. The poignancy of these reveals is manifested by root-seekers as heightened emotion or with the flat affect of shock.

For example, in African American Lives, a show that featured the genealogy of prominent blacks, genetic genealogy results destabilized long and dearly held ideas about ancestry and identity. Social scientist Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, who self-identifies as African American and American Indian, was stunned when host Gates disclosed that racial composite testing suggested she had “no Native American” ancestry whatsoever. Astronaut Mae Jemison, the first black woman to travel into space, on the other hand, is pleasantly surprised to learn that her composite includes an inference of 13 percent “East Asian” ancestry. Similarly, during a striking moment in African American Lives II, the comedian Chris Rock is brought to the brink of tears when he learns from Gates that a previously unknown forbearer bootstrapped his way up from slavery to two stints in the South Carolina legislature. Conventional and genetic tracing also yielded unanticipated results in 2010’s Faces of America. Reveals, coupled with the celebrities’ raw reactions to the information conveyed, often deliver moments of high drama and genuine emotion. Amid discussion of Malcolm Gladwell’s roots, for example, Gates discloses that the best-selling author’s Jamaican maternal ancestor, a free woman of color, owned slaves of African descent.

In the post-Haley era, in which the archival labor of genealogy can be at a remove from the root-seeker, genealogists may accordingly take on a new role: no longer solely family-history archaeologists engaged in the lonely pursuit of excavating vital records and census documents, they can become performers whose job it is to react to genealogical information that is revealed to them. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, less prominent root-seekers than those featured on televised genealogy programs have taken to social media sites to record, perform, and broadcast their reveals, and to disseminate their reflections on the genetic-genealogy-testing experience.

A key to African Ancestry’s success has been Kittles and Paige’s use of and participation in the public ancestry reveals of prominent blacks as a way to promote interest in its genetic genealogy service. Years before African American Lives and Finding Your Roots became standard television fare, Kittles and Paige were sharing their MatriClan and PatriClan test kits with newscasters, singers, actors, and other African American notables. Although the genetic genealogy reveal has now become commonplace, when I met with Paige at African Ancestry’s headquarters in Washington, DC, she noted that her company was the first to introduce it. African Ancestry was the first genetic-ancestry-testing company to highlight celebrity root-seekers, and the public reveal was a strategy developed to draw attention to its products. “Absolutely, we pioneered this,” Paige asserted. The new company had limited marketing resources, and celebrity endorsement was a strategy developed to draw attention to African Ancestry’s services—and also to the social import of the work. Its first celebrity client was actor LeVar Burton in 2003. “People were calling us a twenty-first-century Roots. . . . What better way to represent the twenty-first-century Roots than to tell Kunta Kinte where he’s from,” Paige said of the actor who first came to acclaim as the protagonist of the television miniseries based on Haley’s book (Burton was associated with the Hausa people of Nigeria). African Ancestry’s early celebrity reveals included US Representative Diane Watson of California, actress Vanessa Williams, and actor Isaiah Washington in 2005. For Washington, the experience would prove to be especially transformative.

Biological parentage

After service in the US Air Force, Washington attended the historically black Howard University, where he studied theater. He went on to gain fame as a serious actor with memorable roles in several movies by the director Spike Lee and, beginning in 2005, on the television series Grey’s Anatomy.

In 2006 Washington was accused of making a homophobic remark against a fellow actor on Grey’s Anatomy and was summarily released from the show in 2007. Although he later apologized, Washington was something of a pariah in Hollywood for a period. It was during this time, when the pace of his life slowed, that his abiding interests in African culture and history—which up to then had been manifest primarily in Washington’s preference for Afrocentric dress and Pan-African politics—became more pronounced. In December 2006, as the Hollywood controversy was just starting to brew, for example, he participated in a White House Summit on malaria, serving as the master of ceremonies for a symposium hosted by President George Bush and First Lady Laura Bush.

A year earlier, at the Pan African Film Festival, Washington was presented with the Canada Lee Award, named for the pioneering and multitalented late black actor and performer, who was red-baited out of his Hollywood career, dying in poverty and without the recognition he deserved for his many accomplishments in theater and music. As the Lee awardee, Washington received MatriClan and PatriClan tests from African Ancestry and sent in his DNA several months before the festival took place in anticipation of a reveal during the event.

Washington initially had trepidations about genetic genealogy and worried in particular about how else his DNA sample might be used. He had “concerns about cloning and having my DNA out there somewhere to possibly fall into the wrong hands.” He called Paige, who put him at ease, telling him that “African Ancestry is a privately owned company with no attachments to any forensic or government institution.”

Born in Houston, Texas, to Isaiah Washington III and Faye Marie McKee, Washington has stated that his interest in genetic genealogy testing issued from the feeling that he was an adoptive child. “There was still this pull of me wanting to know my biological parents, which would obviously be the people of the continent of Africa. I just wasn’t satisfied with the explanation that we were from down south. I wasn’t satisfied with the explanation of the history of slavery. . . . I wasn’t satisfied that our names were changed and now we have to move on.”

On the evening that he received his genetic ancestry test results—his “biological parentage,” in his words—he stood on the stage of the Magic Johnson Theater in Los Angeles. Diane Watson and Vanessa Williams had received their genetic genealogy results and Washington was up next.

I stood tightly gripping the African staff that was the PAFF Canada Lee Award I had just received. Dr. Kittles approached me holding a reddish brown–colored folder. The room . . . seemed to go still. . . . I began to feel dizzy, and my legs felt weak; still, I refused to succumb. I felt transformed and complete at that moment. . . . I heard him say, “Isaiah, your results show that you share ancestry with the Mende and Temne peoples of Sierra Leone.” . . . I felt reborn that night. No longer did I need cowrie shells hanging from my locks, African jewelry, African dance classes, or African drumming circles. . . . All the external things that I thought I needed to connect me to Africa were now unnecessary. Africa had been inside of me all along.

The company’s analysis inferred that Washington shared Y-chromosome DNA—which follows patrilineal succession—with one or several Mbundu individuals in contemporary Angola. Using mitochondrial DNA analysis that traced Washington’s matrilineage, African Ancestry inferred that the actor shared some similarity to a Mende or Temne person or persons living in Sierra Leone.

Genealogy is as much about the needs and desires of the living as they are portals to the past. So I was unsurprised when Washington, like many other genetic genealogists I interviewed, exercised choice in selecting which of the inferred associations was most significant to him. “Women come first,” he said to me, by way of explanation—equal parts chivalrous and paternalistic—for why his post-DNA test identity and activities have been oriented toward Sierra Leone rather than Angola. Since receiving his genetic genealogy results, Washington has variously referred to himself as an American, an African American, a “DNA Sierra Leonean,” and an “American–Sierra Leonean,” or simply as a “Sierra Leonean.”

* * *

The “Sara”

Isaiah Washington, whose life’s aims after uncovering his genetic ancestry now include highlighting the importance of Sierra Leone to the descendants of slaves in the American South, was on hand on an overcast morning in February 2009 when I arrived in Charleston, South Carolina, to attend “a ceremony of remembrance” for the ancestors dispersed or lost by the transatlantic slave trade. The majority of the people gathered that day laid claim to Sierra Leone in some manner. The ceremony was organized by the James Madison University–based anthropologist and historian Joseph Opala and other participants of “homecoming” pilgrimages from the United States to Sierra Leone that had taken place in 1989, and again in 1995 and 2005, as a way to connect the Gullah and Geechee communities of South Carolina to the history and culture of the West African region once known as the “Rice Coast.” (Rice was king in the eighteenth century on plantations in South Carolina; plantation owners eagerly sought out slave laborers from this West African region who were experienced with its cultivation.)

During these three pilgrimages, Sierra Leonean elders performed ceremonial rites in which they summoned the “common ancestors” of the Americans and the Africans to “bless their homecomings and bring their broken family back together.” On this February day, past homecoming participants gathered on the shore of the Ashley River, where slave ships had disembarked in the eighteenth century, to perform the same ceremony on US soil. The morning’s spiritual leader for the “ceremony of remembrance” was Amadu Massally, a Sierra Leonean immigrant who had traveled from his home in Texas to officiate at the ceremony. (Massally would return to Sierra Leone later that year after living in the United States for more than twenty-five years.)

Thomalind Martine Polite stood beside Washington, the self-described “DNA Sierra Leonean,” on the river’s bank. On this morning, they stood together as “kin.” Polite traces her roots back to Sierra Leone, through conventional archival evidence, to a little girl named Priscilla who was purchased and transmitted from Bunce Island, a British slave fort near what is now Freetown, Sierra Leone, to a coastal region of South Carolina.

In a best-selling 1998 book, Slaves in the Family, Edward Ball traces the roots of his white wealthy southern family and, with admirable genealogical honesty, includes in his ancestral portrait the enslaved men and women his family owned. In contrast with the 2015 controversy in which the actor Ben Affleck successfully lobbied to have his family’s slave-owning past hidden on Finding Your Roots, the dauntless Ball shined a bright light on the bondage that lies not only at the center of his family but also at the center of American history and society.

At the height of racial slavery, Ball’s family had the distinction of being the most successful plantation owners in South Carolina. The Balls had close to two dozen plantations, owned thousands of slaves, and kept detailed and extensive records about the people who labored for them without pay on their rice plantations. Their twentieth-century descendants would use these records intended for commerce and capital accumulation to draw the family tree of the enslaved ten-year-old African girl Priscilla. Ball retraced the family line for seven generations, from Priscilla to Thomas Martin. For his part, Opala located the uncharacteristically detailed cargo manifest of the slave ship that was Priscilla’s Middle Passage. The slave manifest and genealogical research together provide the hard evidence of the Polites’ African origins—information that is the envy of many slave descendants.

When Thomalind Martin Polite, Thomas’s daughter, traveled to Sierra Leone in 2005, she was believed to carry Priscilla’s spirit with her. The homecoming journey was said to allow the spirit of the little girl, taken from her home hundreds of years ago, to come to rest in the land of her birth. A ritual was performed in which African Americans and Africans called upon their “common ancestors” as a way to restore their broken families. During this trip, Thomalind met with Sierra Leone’s president, Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, and at a waterside ceremony not unlike the one taking place in Charleston, she received an African name.

Massally, Washington, and Polite formed a troika at the center of the intimate group of about twenty-five people that assembled at a bend of the Ashley River. A slave ship from Bunce Island was known to have docked there in 1760, holding a public auction of enslaved Africans. Today the site, known as the Ashley Ferry Landing, is tucked behind a subdivision of unassuming late-model suburban homes.

A few members of the Gullah community—the descendants living in the “low country” or the low-lying coastal regions, were present, including Emory Campbell, who for decades worked to highlight the African linguistic and cultural retentions between his community and Sierra Leoneans. Campbell was a leader of the “Gullah Homecoming” to Bunce Island in 1998. Also in attendance were one or two reporters and a few scholars.

While solemnly singing, the small group passed around a white floral wreath until it came back to Washington, who gently placed it into the river. Massally performed an ancestral sacrifice (or “sara”). He asked the ancestors to join the group, welcomed their arrival, and offered them comfort by providing them with a little of their homeland represented by sand from Bunce Island and rocks from Sierra Leone, which were dispersed into the Ashley. This material symbolized the return of the lost West African homeland to the Sierra Leoneans taken captive generations ago.

This ceremony of remembrance included a group of about eight people who also referred to themselves as “DNA Sierra Leoneans.” Several were from South Carolina and many, like Washington, had employed African Ancestry’s services in an effort to access even a measure of the family knowledge possessed by Priscilla’s descendants. Also in the group were four black women dressed as bondswomen, cultural workers at the nearby Magnolia Plantation, where later that morning Washington would preside over the dedication of small cabins built between 1850 and 1900 in which enslaved people and, later, sharecroppers and paid laborers resided from the era of slavery well into the late twentieth century. The cabins were being opened for heritage tourism.

About an hour later and just a few miles down the road, Washington stood at a podium under a white tent on the grounds of Magnolia Plantation, ready to officiate the dedication of “The Magnolia Plantation Slave Cabin Project.” The four cabins had been refurbished with a $100,000 grant from the Annenberg Foundation for their educational value in relaying blacks’ experiences on southern plantations. The women in period dress who had taken part in the ceremony at the river took up their posts as historical interpreters, sharing information about the lives and lifeways of the black people who resided there. Washington was joined as a special guest by Joseph P. Riley Jr., the mayor of Charleston, South Carolina; Campbell, in his capacity as the chairman of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission, and Opala.

Winslow Hastie, a thirty-something fourteenth-generation descendant of the white family who owned the plantation-cum-tourist site, had introduced Washington, who spoke facing one of the cabins. Explaining his presence and his connection to South Carolina and Sierra Leone, he proclaimed to the assembled crowd, “DNA has memory.” This statement appears in a brochure for the Gondobay Manga Foundation, a philanthropy established to provide health, education, and economic development services to Sierra Leone by Washington, who became dedicated to “connecting the dots” to the country after receiving his test results. Like many root-seekers, he soon traveled to the country with which he was matched, making his first-ever trip to Sierra Leone in 2006. The highlight of the trip for the actor was his induction into a Mende community and his renaming as “Chief Gondobay Manga.”

Washington’s African name would be used as the name of his foundation, which “advocates cooperative planning to achieve positive, timely improvements in the lives of the people of West Africa.”14 The fundraising efforts of the Gondobay Manga Foundation have to date facilitated the commencement or completion of three significant undertakings.

According to the foundation, an elementary school—the Chief Foday Golia Memorial School, named for a late community leader— was completed in 2008 in the village of Njala Kendema and serves more than 150 students. Renovation of a municipal hospital in Bo, Sierra Leone’s second-largest city, is underway. Washington has also been working to help create the infrastructure for a water-filtration system that would provide clean water to the nation’s villages. The foundation is also involved with fundraising for the preservation of Bunce Island, the British slave castle, or trading site, that was a point of disembarkment for thousands upon thousands of Africans who would be rendered bonded chattel when they reached the shores of Georgia, Florida, and the Ashley River in South Carolina.

Unsurprisingly for someone who’s been in front of a camera most of his life, Washington brought a film crew with him to record his “family” reunion on the African continent. The resulting program, Isaiah Washington’s Passport to Sierra Leone, was broadcast on the Africa Channel in 2010. Extending the reveal, it followed the actor for four years, from his first trip to the country to the visit that culminates with his gaining dual citizenship there based on his genetic genealogy test.


Excerpted from "The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation After the Genome" by Alondra Nelson (Beacon Press, 2016). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.

By Alondra Nelson

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