Thursday, February 2, 2012

Spoiler Alert: Who Do You Think You Are?

     DNA tests are increasingly popular means of studying history and genealogy.  Genetic tests can prove especially helpful for African-Americans. 
     The Yoruba people of southwestern Nigeria are famous for their influence on Haitian, Brazilian and Cuban religious life.  In the United States, Yoruba influence is most conspicuous in Louisiana.  Called "Nago" and "Lucumi" in various locations in North and South America, the Yoruba people came from the Bight of Benin, a region along the coast of Nigeria, Togo and Benin.      
     In her book, Slavery and African Ethnicities in the Americas: Restoring the Links, Gwendolyn Midlo Hall warned against overstating the Yoruba presence among captives sent to mainland North America.  Hall wrote, "Except for Louisiana, where Nago were 4 percent of identified ethnicities, the presence of Yoruba in the United States was insignificant."  In a recent article for Folio Weekly (Jacksonville, Florida), I wrote, "Most African Americans...should not expect a match in the Bight of Benin." 
     In an upcoming episode of Who Do You Think You Are?, however, American actor Blair Underwood discovers that 13% of his ancestry is Yoruba. 
     In his book, The Final Victims: Foreign Slave Trade to North America, 1783-1810, James A. McMillin wrote that after the Revolutionary War ended in 1783, American slave imports from what is now Nigeria dropped dramatically. 
     It was in this period that more Yoruba became victims of the slave trade.  Just as Americans bought fewer and fewer captives from Nigeria, merchants there crammed more and more Yoruba people into American and European slave ships. G. Ugo Nwokeji remarked that in this same period (the late-1700s and early-1800s), the Nigerian port of Old Calabar began selling more people captured in nearby Cameroon. 
     After 1783, relatively few slave ships came to America from what is now Nigeria.  Those few ships, however, were more likely than before to carry Yoruba or Cameroonian prisoners.  In fact, Blair Underwood's ancestry is 27% Bamoun, an ethnic group from Cameroon.
     Since 40% of Underwood's ancestry is Yoruba and Cameroonian combined, many of his ancestors probably arrived relatively late in the slave trade.  His family's recent arrival in America means that Underwood is more likely to discover (spoiler alert) a close relative in Africa.  For Blair Underwood's ancestral connection to Ghana, please visit the post here.  
Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, Slavery and African Ethnicities in the Americas: Restoring the Links (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005), 23.
James A. McMillin, The Final Victims: Foreign Slave Trade to North America, 1783-1810 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2004), 69.
G. Ugo Nwokeji, The Slave Trade and Culture in the Bight of Biafra: An African Society in the Atlantic World (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 156note.
Brian Patrick O'Malley, "Roots Rock: Recently discovered slave graves resurrect discussion on the origins of African Americans," Folio Weekly (Jacksonville, Florida), 3-9 January 2012, 43 < > (accessed 2/3/2012).


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