Note from BW of Brazil: It’s an experience many of us have had. That moment when you start to think, where did I come from? Although growing up n Detroit and seeing that all of my family and friends were black, it didn’t really provide me with a deeper response to the question. I got some of that answer in knowing that both my parents’ family came from the south of the United States, but even so, that still wasn’t enough. My first memory of being exposed to the deeper side of the question came when I saw the TV mini-series Roots. It was a shocking experience as no one had ever told me about the history of black Americans in the era of slavery. I went to a Catholic school and certainly none of my classmates not the teachers revealed this piece of history. As I watched the series show black families being torn apart after one or another member of the family had been sold, then seeing the brutal whippings and a fugitive slave having his foot chopped off with an axe, I remember looking at my parents and thinking, “That’s where we came from?”
Of course today I know that presenting that history as the origins of African descendants is a European trick that manipulates us by not telling our full history. The full story of Africa’s people can never be shown on such a mass media outlet because it would allow us to see ourselves in a different manner, one that could threaten to remove the mental shackles of which millions of us continue to live with. This history in which we are told that we were slaves and that’s it is also a way that Black History is dealt with in Brazil. Besides the numerous TV novelas set in the slavery era and helping to form the nation’s understanding of its black population, this history is also often the only way Afro-Brazilians are presented in school textbooks, that is when they are presented at all.
One way that some people are taking advantage of to learn more about themselves and their history is by taking the popular DNA tests that supposedly provide its users with a sort of passport into the past by revealing what part of Africa their ancestors came from. I don’t know if I’d consider taking such a test because there have been numerous reports showing that these DNA tests are far from being 100% accurate in their results and some spokespersons have even admitted that they in fact are not supposed be taken as such. But even knowing this, I still like seeing the results from these tests just to imagine the possibilities. These DNA tests have been carried out in Brazil in recent years and an intriguing documentary was released showing some of the participants in the process. In a past post, we introduced the Brasil: DNA África project and sometime in the future, I’ll do a follow up on that project as many people continue to have interest in our origins and past, which is surely what provoked Júlia Freitas to write the piece below. Check it out.
Where we come from: the history of Afro-descendants in Brazil
By Júlia Freitas
* text originally published in Issue # 24 of Capitolina Magazine
During the time in which I lived outside the country it was common to hear my friends and acquaintances speak with very detailed information about their ancestors. “My paternal grandfather is the son of an Austrian with an Italian. He came to America and met my grandmother, who is the daughter of a Russian with a French,” and I found these stories incredible. I listened to it all very attentive, impressed by these connections to the older generations. But when it came to my turn to speak about my ancestors, the only thing I could say was, “My ancestors came from Africa.” And nothing else.
We know that the beginning of humanity goes back to the African continent more than 150 thousand years ago, and although there are billions of descendants of the peoples of Africa in the world, we Brazilians have that blood running in our veins in a very pulsating way. Brazilians, blacks and those born in Salvador (the city with the most blacks outside of Africa), like me, are almost certain that their ancestors came from a country in Africa, mainly in the Central-Western part of the country (now Angola) or the Gulf of Benin (which is the coastline from Ivory Coast to Nigeria). This data comes from several surveys that have been done for many years, but even so everything is very vague.
The trafficking of black Africans to Brazil at the time of colonization lasted nearly four centuries and forced more than 4.8 million enslaved Africans into our country. Coming from the most diverse parts of Africa and from the most different tribes and ethnicities, here in Brazil they were crowded and forced to live together despite their differences. In this brutal system that was slavery, they lost their name and identities, had their documents destroyed and their past erased. This was also the moment when the connection between the Afro-descendants of Brazil and their roots in Africa was interrupted.
A few weeks ago, an article on the free TV showed an interesting project that has been trying to unite these tips of history again. With the name Brasil: DNA África, the project, which will become a documentary, interviewed and tested DNA in 150 Afro-descendant Brazilians with the purpose of tracing the roots of the ancestors of each one of them. The tests are done by an American company, African Ancestry, which guarantees to find the African ancestors of whom they want and has about three hundred dollars to take such an exam. Among the project participants, five had the chance to travel to the African continent and rediscover their origins.
We know that this is not a possible reality for the vast majority of Afro-Brazilians. And so, for those many others still denied the right to know its roots?
Slavery in Brazil was abolished 129 years ago, but even today the consequences of this system of servitude affect the lives of millions of people throughout Africa and on the American continents that have received Africans. They are people who have lost connection to each other. They are generations of families who do not know where they came from, who do not know their roots and their stories and who are orphans of much information.
However, although I don’t know whether my direct ancestors came from Angola or Nigeria or from Cameroon, I know one thing: we Afro-Brazilians are not descendants of slaves. We are heirs of warriors, kings and queens who crossed the Atlantic Ocean in the most adverse situations and survived. And they fought! And I have the greatest pride in being who I am, the color of my skin, my features and my history, even if I don’t know it entirely.
I think we have to be a little careful in how we interpret DNA tests, but also recognize that they also can provide key bits of information for many of us of African descent who may want a sense of our deeper genetic past. Whatever criticisms one may have about Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s *Finding Your Roots*, I have found the genealogical research component of the show, coupled with the information about genetic links, to be illuminating at times. One thing Gates has shown, and which other studies confirm, is that most African Americans are racially mixed, with an average of roughly 70% African ancestry (or more), and about 24-25% European ancestry. This makes sense given the long history of chattel slavery and varies depending upon where people are from (the Sea Islands of South Carolina vs. someone Black whose family has lived for numerous generations in Washington State, say). But Black Americans can proudly say, as we always have and should, that we are Black and (primarily) African people. Also, Gates’ show has underlined that many African Americans, despite the apocryphal family stories, do not have Native American ancestry, or it is much less than we’ve been told.
One danger of the tests that I’ve seen is people will make assumptions based on contemporary African societies when the DNA markers are more complex. You see this in Ancestry DNA commercials, like the one where the woman says she’s now wearing a Gele because her ancestry is “Nigerian,” when the reality is it could be of any of the groups in Nigeria (or the nearby regions), since Nigeria itself is a product of colonialism. At the same time, she clearly xdoes have ancestry that comes directly from one of the main or less common groups living in Nigeria, and further testing could probably tell her that. Given that Brazil is now a majority Black-Brown country, and received far more enslaved Africans than what is now the US, which has roughly 42 million Black people (according to the 2010 Census, so it most certainly is higher now), I’d be curious to know what the genetic testing says. I’ve seen posts on Wikipedia claiming most Afro-Brazilians are mostly European, but that struck me as some sort of pre-emptive racialized and potentially racist framing, so what do the tests today say?