Called back to Africa by DNA
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.
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. “
Archer and Gregory Simpkins, a vice president of the Leon H. Sullivan Foundation, which seeks to build bridges between the U.S. and Africa, are working to promote dual citizenship with Benin, Ghana, Tanzania and others. In a 63-page proposal to African leaders at a Tanzanian summit last year, Archer advocated granting dual citizenship to African descendants if ancestral linkages could be shown through DNA tests.
Ghana is the only African nation that clearly offers citizenship to African Americans, Archer said. Its “right to abode” law allows citizenship for those who live in the country for several years; Archer would like to see that requirement waived.
Liberia, which was founded by freed American slaves, used to offer citizenship to African Americans but adopted a new constitution in 1986 that is less clear on the question, he said.
In Sierra Leone, which made Washington a citizen, requests are decided on a case-by-case basis by a presidential commission; an ancestral linkage is not necessarily required.
Cyrille Segbe Oguin, Benin’s ambassador to the United States, said African nations were pondering ways to accommodate the desire for dual citizenship. The West African nation took the first step toward reconciliation with African Americans a decade ago by apologizing for its part in the slave trade and hosting annual festivals to help nurture ties between the two sides.
“We want to repair the broken relations and see what we can do together,” Oguin said.
So far, however, Washington is one of the few African Americans who have received African citizenship in recent years. Sierra Leone President Ernest Bai Koroma granted it to Washington last fall because of his DNA test, his philanthropy and his celebrity, said Bockari Kortu Stevens, the nation’s ambassador to the United States.
Stevens said Sierra Leone, which is emerging from a decade of brutal civil war, needed someone famous like Washington to improve its image.
“We need a celebrity to come out and say, ‘Look, the war is over, it’s a peaceful country and there are lots of private sector investment opportunities,’ ” Stevens said.
The African diaspora has reached out to the continent since the early 19th century, as Jamaican-born Marcus Garvey advocated a “Back to Africa” movement and freed American slaves established a colony in Liberia.
The black consciousness movement of the 1960s also produced a renewed interest in connecting with Africa, said Earl Ofari Hutchinson, an African American commentator in Los Angeles.
In addition to Obama and the popularity of DNA testing, the latest round of interest, Hutchinson and others said, is driven by factors including: increased affluence among African Americans, political stability in African nations such as Liberia and a new Africa Channel offered to 1.5 million households by Time Warner Cable.
In recent years, Winfrey has built a school in South Africa. Rap superstar Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter has launched plans to build 1,000 water pumps throughout the continent. Comedian Chris Rock and his wife, Malaak Compton-Rock, have pitched in for schooling, basic needs and medical care for South African orphans and grandmother-led households.
Robert L. Johnson, Black Entertainment Television founder, is building a $12-million, four-star beachfront resort in Liberia and has put together a $30-million private equity fund to aid Liberian entrepreneurs.
In 2001, Bishop Charles E. Blake, pastor of the 22,000-member West Angeles Church of God in Christ, launched Save Africa’s Children, which has served 200,000 children with AIDS in 21 African countries. But smaller congregations are reaching out to Africa as well.
Minister Tony Dunn of the 2,000-member Zoe Christian Fellowship of Whittier leads regular missions to Africa and said he is talking to three other Los Angeles-area black churches interested in launching them as well.
“Our focus was on civil rights in the ‘60s,” Dunn said. “Now that we’re progressing and getting better economically and socially, I believe we’re more open to our capacity to be mindful to others.”
For Washington, his DNA test led him to visit Sierra Leone for the first time in 2006. He said he was astonished that the faces of the people looked so much like his own relatives, and that the African landscape had shown up in his dreams.
One of the walls in his Burbank office is covered with 15 photos documenting that trip: a boy hunting for clean water, a newborn near death in Washington’s arms and a child who had received plastic surgery. Other mementos include a harvest mask, a jar of Namibian soil and his chieftain’s hand-carved wooden staff.
Since then, Washington has leaped into a flurry of activities. They include establishing his Gondobay Manga Foundation -- named after a heroic African warrior whose name was given to Washington at his 2006 chieftain induction ceremony. His Coalhouse Productions company is making a documentary about Sierra Leone.
That same year, Washington spoke at a White House summit on malaria and last year he joined Sierra Leone President Koroma’s delegation to the United Nations and Washington.
The actor believes that “DNA has memory,” that the calling to come home and help his people was embedded in his genes all along.
“I am who I was,” Washington said. “This doesn’t negate the love I have for the United States, but my real parents are Sierra Leone.”