Who Are Your People?: Finding Family through DNA Genealogy

In Search of Real Ancestors

Anaisa Bayala remembers vividly as a child trying to sit still while her mother put chemicals in her hair to straighten it.

“She used to relax my hair at age 4. She threatened me, told me if I told anyone, she’d beat my (butt),” said Bayala, with a laugh. “Mom tried to hide our culture, but she moved into a Black neighborhood.”

Her mother was born in the Dominican Republic, Bayala said, where even though most residents are undoubtedly Black, they claim to be ‘Indios,’ Spanish or anything but African.

Bayala, a genealogy enthusiast, said she also recalls coming home from school and asking her Abuelo, her grandfather about his experiences as a black man in the 1940s and ‘50s.

“Ignorant me. I opened a can of worms. He let me have it, yelled at me, lit into me, told me he wasn’t black,” Bayala said. “He said ‘I’m Indio.’ It wasn’t my grandfather’s fault. It is something that was engrained in the Caribbean. There are 32 degrees of blackness and 95 percent of the people in the Dominican Republic are black but people described themselves as Indians with good hair and said they got their complexions by being in the sun.”

Bayala said she didn’t grow up with her father, who was Puerto Rican, but when they reconnected she asked lots of questions, then went digging.

“My father and I used to talk all the time and he would ask me ‘how many people did I bother today?’ It became a daily thing. I had him on speed dial.”

“This is like vindication for our ancestors.”

Bayala, a project manager at Verizon in Florida, said she’s fallen in love with genealogy, ancestry and the search for family and roots. Bayala, who grew up in New York City, said she’s traced her ancestry to Angola and has cousin matches from the Gambia, Ghana and the Congo.

She said she has cousin matches from Gambia, Ghana and Congo.

“I have more than 21,000 cousin matches from Ancestry DNA. I’m a first-generation immigrant whose parents came to the U.S. beginning in the 1940s, yet I have many Jamaican and Brazilian cousins. The nice thing about it is we all descend from this line.”

Bayala said she created a website where she helps other people to seek and find family and ancestors without cost, and also offers them references of where to track down information. Her website has detailed genealogical information from 15 different Caribbean islands and nation-states.

‘Finding Your Roots’

Bayala is one of millions of people of African descent who are or have used DNA testing to trace their roots. Like her, they seek to fill the void of not knowing their history, the names of their ancestors or where they’re from. Most are descendants of enslaved Africans torn from the continent of Africa beginning in the 1400s, with an estimated 30-90 million transported to the New World, and millions more dying before they reached ports in the Caribbean, U.S. and Latin America.

Many people of African descent and people of color hit a brick wall in their search for family because enslaved people were stripped of their original African names, language and culture in what many historians describe as the most dehumanizing chapter in world history. Slave owners in the U.S., Britain and elsewhere regarded enslaved Africans as property and often didn’t bother to list them by name. Also, many didn’t have a last name or were given the name of the slave master.

The mini-series, Roots, triggered in the late 1970s an upsurge of interest in African Americans’ past, their ancestry and blood ties. The PBS program, Finding Your Roots, in its fourth year and wildly popular, showcases host and historian Henry Louis Gates and a team of genealogists and researchers, unearthing the family histories and stories of American celebrities. Among those who have sat with Gates: actress Lupita N’yong’o, singer-songwriter Carly Simon, actress Angela Bassett, Sen. Bernie Sanders, political strategist Ana Navarro, rapper Nas and basketball star Carmelo Anthony.

“What we have is story telling power,” Gates said in an earlier interview. “We turn raw data into narrative. If you trace your family tree and you find say the 1900 census, well it looks pretty boring if you’re looking at it on the computer screen. But if you could contextualize it, figure out why were they there? What was happening in this society at the time? Why would they move from what is now Poland to New York City with five dollars in their pocket? It’s fascinating and riveting.”

Gates, the Director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard, said spotlighting how different ethnic groups contributed to world history and the ways that their experiences ‘merged or conflicted’ with those of other groups is also of immense value, he explained.

At the end of the day, he said, a program like ‘Finding Your Roots’ is “part of a larger education process to make us all realize we’re fully human.”

“Finding Your Roots is aimed at more than satisfying individual curiosity and telling an engrossing story, said Gates, a writer and executive producer of the series. “It carries a message of shared origins that he argues can benefit society. The science of DNA proves that ‘there aren’t four or five biologically distinct races. We’re all from one race, the human race, genetically. And we know that genetically we all descended from common ancestors that left the African continent 50,000 years ago. That’s a fact.”

Gates praised the uptick in digitization of data and records and advances in DNA testing, both which enhance the search process of the celebs backgrounds. But nothing can replace the old-style searches, which while tedious and painstaking are an important element in the search process.

“It’s such a great gift that you can give to people,” Gates said. “I love genealogy. I think that if people do their family tree and have their DNA analyzed, it’ll help to break down barriers. It helps people realize that we’re all the same at the level of genomes.”


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