A route to a new identity

“Kunta Kinte. My name is ... Kunta Kinte.’’ Ask any black person with memories of the late 1970s and they will recall the scene.
The slave from Alex Haley’s Roots TV series, who had just survived the crossing to America, hanging from a post, being whipped by his new “owner’’ and defiantly refusing to give up his African identity. But after several more lashes, he could stand no more and submitted.

That was the reality for several million people who were forcibly removed from their West or Central African villages, to become the property of plantation owners of the New World. Religion and language, as well as names, were beaten out of them.

They were taught that Europeans were powerful, Africans were weak; that Europeans were civilised, Africans savage; that Europe mattered, Africa didn’t. Over the generations, much of this seeped into their consciousness, and a feeling of inferiority began to dominate their view of their ancestral home. Every negative stereotype about the “dark continent’’ became a reason to turn their back on Africa.

In recent years, though, across the diaspora there has been a rebirth of interest in Africa. Rastafarians adopted Ethiopia as their home; more recently, many children have been given African names. But these developments have limited significance — people may choose Zulu names, for example, which have little connection with their direct history.

Now, though, things may be about to change. As detailed in a recent BBC TV documentary, for the first time black people across the globe have a chance to trace their lineage back to specific areas of Africa. By analysing DNA it is possible to trace the sequence of ancestors along the mother line — and by

Y-chromosomes (men only), through the father line — and match them with samples taken across the continent. Although a costly and unpredictable procedure at present, it is only a matter of time before it becomes widely and commercially available.

The programme linked south Londoner Mark Anderson with the Kanuri people of Niger, and Beaula McCalla, of Jamaican parentage, with the Bubi people on the tiny island of Bioko off the coast of Cameroon. Both are completely overwhelmed at meeting their long-lost, directly blood-related cousins, describing their reunions as “the most amazing day of my life’‘.

Soon black people across the globe can share these experiences. For the first time, in thinking of Africa, they’ll be able to discard the stories of war, famine and disease and focus instead on real people and real ways of life. Could this be the moment when a new sense of identity emerges?

The problem with the current racial label, “black’‘, is that no one has yet worked out what it means. Can you be black if your skin colour is a little bit lighter? Are you a “real” black if you don’t like soul or reggae music?

Once black people begin retracing their roots, will it not be a huge encouragement for those with internalised negative stereotypes to rediscover a thirst for knowledge?

Just as important, it could finally break down the barriers that has them identify themselves as a colour rather than what they all really are — Africans. This, surely, is what Kunta Kinte would have wanted. — Â

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