BALTIMORE — Maia Wise spent the last day of Black History Month adding an important piece to the puzzle of her identity.
Thanks to a genetic testing event sponsored and hosted each year by the University of Maryland, Baltimore, Wise found out Tuesday that her maternal lineage ultimately goes back to the Masa, Mafa and Kotoko people of Cameroon. She immediately texted and sent the news via Snapchat to her relatives.
“It feels good. Almost like a sense of wholeness and completion,” Wise said after she learned of her genetic results from AfricanAncestry.com. “I’m happy with that.”
Gina Paige, co-founder and CEO of AfricanAncestry.com, (center) stands flanked by University of Maryland, Baltimore students who just learned their ancestral homelands through genetic tests conducted by Paige’s company. The students are, from left to right: Maia Wise, Shannah Edmonds, Jasmine Whitcomb and Tahrea Flemming.
For Wise, a graduate student in social work at UMB, acquiring the knowledge that she descended from specific groups of people in Cameroon helps fulfill her longstanding desire for details about her identity that began when she first left home in Newport News, Va. — a mostly Black and White city that she describes as “racist” — and began college as an undergraduate at George Mason University.
Whereas Wise saw the world largely in terms of black and white back in her hometown, once at GMU Wise began to interact with African students who made her realize that Blackness was only part of her identity as an African American.
“Growing up and not really knowing where I’m from, when I got to college, it was a much more diverse environment, with me meeting people from Liberia, Ghana,” Wise said.
Wise got more insight into how she and other African Americans are viewed abroad when she visited Malawi as a member of the Peace Corps.
“They would only tell me I was Black American,” Wise recalled of her time in Malawi.
That perception made her feel out of place in both Africa as well as the United States.
“Too Black for America and not Black enough for Africa,” Wise said. “That was kind of how I felt.”
Now, Wise has a whole new sense of identity. And she has a newfound connection with her fellow students from Cameroon. In fact, one Cameroon student at UMB came up to Wise after her “reveal” by AfricanAncestry.com, embraced Wise and asked her when is she going to Cameroon to visit.
“Oh, soon,” Wise said. “I must now.”
Similar stories played out as Gina Paige, CEO and cofounder of AfricanAncestry.com, revealed results from genetic tests for three other students at UMB by tracing their maternal line.
In a presentation that included a “refresher” lesson on how African Americans largely got disconnected from their original culture, Paige said Africans brought to North America via the transAtlantic slave trade were the “original victims of identity theft.”
Through being sold into chattel slavery and moved from one plantation to the next, Paige said enslaved Africans and their descendants lost the knowledge of their original names, language and spiritual beliefs.
To illustrate her point, she showed a well-known clip from the epic 1977 film saga — “Roots” — in which the central character — Kunta Kinte — was whipped and forced to disregard his African name and call himself “Toby.”
She called attention to the distinction that African Americans have in relation to other Americans, who can affix a specific country to their American identity, such as Italian Americans or Irish Americans.
“When they put their country as part of American, it kind of lifts it up. They have a bit more pride,” Paige said. “When we put African in front of American, first of all it’s a whole continent. It’s not even a country. And then it kind of depresses the American value. I don’t understand it.”
If African Americans turn to genealogy to learn more about where they are from, they will eventually be frustrated because “the catch for Black folks is we weren’t even counted as human beings, as people, until the 1870 census,” Paige said. “You can use genealogy, it will maybe get you back to the 1880s, 1890, but you’re gonna hit a brick wall. Most likely we often get stumped.”
For Paige, genetic tracing is the answer. Paige did not shy away from criticizing other commercial genetic firms that are vying for African American business.
Though other commercial genetic tests may be less expensive — coming in at under $100 — Paige told the small crowd that gathered in at the SMC Campus Center at UMB that the results from other firms are not as reliable because their genetic databases are dramatically smaller.
Whereas one genetic testing firm offers African Americans the chance to trace their lineage to one of nine regions, AfricanAncestry.com enables its customers to trace their lineage to one of 40 countries, Paige said.
And while other firms base their results on less than 500 genetic samples, Paige said AfricanAncestry.com has 33,000 samples.
“That’s a big difference we offer,” Paige said.
Courtney J. Jones Carney, director of Interprofessional Student Learning & Service Initiatives at UMB, said she has been partnering with AfricanAncestry.com to offer genetic testing to four students each year for the past five years.
This year, one student won the genetic test through a raffle at a campus event. The other three were selected randomly from about two dozen applicants.
Jones Carney said the university pays for the event each year. The cost includes the cost of the genetic testing — at just under $300 a piece — and the cost of travel to bring Paige to the event to conduct the “reveal.” Jones Carney said she would offer the genetic tests to more students if she could.
“This is something that all of our students deserve to know the answer to, to identify this extra piece of the puzzle,” Jones Carney said.
Jamaal Abdul-Alim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or you can follow him on Twitter @dcwriter360.