Genes unearth deep roots


The U of C’s Rick Kittles was the star draw last Thursday night at the Newberry Library’s panel presentation, “Genetic Genealogy and the Ancestries of African Americans.” The crowd of more than 200 and a crew from CBS's 60 Minutes had come seeking something special. Kittles, an associate professor of medicine and the science director of, promised the black attendees history.

Taking the podium, Kittles said that genetics holds the key to tracing African American family lines beyond the slave trade. Panelist Christopher Rabb, a genealogist, spoke of his own struggle uncovering roots deeper than American plantations. Rabb spent nine years searching for where in Africa his ancestors had lived. He eventually went to Kittles, who used DNA to show Rabb that his ancestors likely included Moroccans, West Africans, and South Asians.

Both Rabb and Kittles recognized that genetic testing for ancestry complicates the history and social reality of race in the United States. Kittles noted that although “Halle Berry is at least, but probably more than, half European, she is a black woman.” African Ancestry's tests have shown that thirty percent of Americans descend from Europeans. It is a history that the country must come to recognize, Rabb said of the "institutionalized rape" that is part of his ancestry. “I was ashamed that I have five, seven, nine lines of blood coursing through my veins based on violence.” He found relief by understanding “the difference between ancestry—what you are—and heritage—who you are and what you choose to be.”

Genetic genealogy has its detractors. In a heated question-and-answer session, panel moderator and genealogist Tony Burroughs grilled Kittles on African Ancestry’s accuracy. Using a proprietary database of 30,000 genetic samples from Africa, the company’s work has never been published, reproduced, or otherwise independently verified. Furthermore, because the tests use the DNA of current population groups, the “ancestry tests” in effect tell only the location of “cousins” in Africa, not necessarily where African Americans' ancestors were located 400 years ago.

The audience was largely unconcerned by Burroughs’s objections, responding with murmurs, sighs, and rolled eyes. After the program, glowing smiles and firm handshakes bombarded the man whose work promises history and identity for millions.

The talk, cosponsored by the University's Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture and part of the Illinois Humanities Council’s “Future Perfect: Conversations on the Meaning of the Genetics Revolution” series, is available online.

Ethan Frenchman, '08

Photos: Rick Kittles discusses the science behind African Ancestry's genetic genealogy tests; audience members greet Kittles as 60 Minutes cameras roll.

July 2, 2007