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Called back to Africa by DNA

More African Americans are seeking dual citizenship and reconnecting with their ancestral homelands thanks to increasingly sophisticated technology.

February 18, 2009|Teresa Watanabe

As a child growing up in Houston, Isaiah Washington said, his first impressions of Africans were discomfiting TV images of "natives running around in raffia with bones in their noses . . . trying to put Tarzan in a pot."

The 45-year-old African American actor, formerly of "Grey's Anatomy," said his mother never talked of Africa. School never taught him much about his ancestral continent and news stories, he said, projected a place of poverty and pestilence, corruption and war.

Today, however, Washington stands so proud of Africa that he recently became a citizen of Sierra Leone, making him a dual national of that West African country and his native United States. He was inducted as a chieftain in a Sierra Leonean village. He's started a foundation to aid Sierra Leone, contributing nearly $1 million to build a school, restore a hospital and preserve a historic British slave castle on nearby Bunce Island.

Washington's long journey from ignorance about Africa to an impassioned embrace of it was accelerated by a 2005 DNA test that linked him to the Mende people of Sierra Leone. Now, he said, descendants of slaves like him can return to the motherland to help it prosper.

"If we can take our intellects and resources, and reverse the brain drain and help rebuild these countries, we can define our legacies," Washington said.

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Washington reflects renewed interest among African Americans reaching out to Africa, some of them inspired by DNA tests that they believe solve centuries-old puzzles about their origins.

The newly uncovered connections have led to more travel, philanthropic work, business ventures and, as with Washington, efforts to seek dual citizenship.

The trend is expected to accelerate with the presidency of Barack Obama, a son of Kenya and Kansas. His celebrated journey to his ancestral African village in 2006 was beamed around the globe, motivating many to explore their roots, black commentators say.

Particularly since Oprah Winfrey and other celebrities had their DNA tested in a 2006 PBS documentary, African Americans are increasingly using science to supplement oral histories and traditional genealogical research to find their roots, said G. Kofi Annan, a New Jersey-based design and marketing consultant who blogs about African trends.

The curiosity has fueled the growth of DNA testing outfits. African Ancestry Inc., a Washington-based firm, has tested the DNA of 15,000 people against its database of 25,000 African genetic lineages, according to its president, Gina M. Paige. The firm's clients include Winfrey, film director Spike Lee, musician Quincy Jones, comedian Whoopi Goldberg and actors Morgan Freeman and Don Cheadle.

Other DNA testers include Bruce A. Jackson, co-director of the African American DNA Roots Project at the University of Massachusetts, who said he is swamped with so many requests that he has stopped taking them until he works through a two-year backlog.

He argues, however, that the global database of African genetic profiles is too small to be able to pinpoint the exact country of origin. Rick Kittles, African Ancestry's scientific director and University of Chicago associate professor of medicine, counters that his proprietary database is large enough for accurate testing.

The DNA testing has led some African Americans to the newest frontier in connecting to the continent: dual citizenship.

Anthony Archer, an adjunct political science professor at Cal State Dominguez Hills, is working to persuade African nations to extend citizenship to African Americans. The Detroit native said his parents had always nurtured a pride in their African heritage.

His desire to reach out to Africa took off after his Jewish elementary school teacher told him about her people's quest to return to their homeland and introduced him to the writings of Malcolm X, he said. For years, he spent weekends poring over genealogical records in search of his roots. In what he calls a life-altering experience, he took a DNA test last spring and was told he shared ancestry with the Tikar, Hausa and Fulani peoples in Cameroon.

Elated if surprised -- he thought his roots were Ghanaian, based on his research -- Archer is writing a letter to the president of Cameroon requesting dual citizenship. He said the country has not yet considered the question for African Americans.

Archer and other advocates said dual citizenship would help heal the lingering wounds of separation while offering both sides a chance to collaborate in trade and investment. With two passports, African Americans would enjoy greater rights in their ancestral country to own property, start businesses and travel freely, he said. (U.S. law does not bar Americans from acquiring other citizenships, a State Department official said.)

"African Americans are the richest Africans in the world," said Archer, 43. "Africa can tap into us for our resources, and we can tap into them for our identities. "

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