Project Genesis: The Reveal

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A screenshot of the e-mail notification the author received, alerting her that her AncestryDNA results were ready.

On May 4th, I got an e-mail that informed me that my DNA results had been processed and were available to review. I was nervous, almost as you might be in anticipating the results of an exam, and anxious, like when you’re sitting in reception, waiting to be called in for an interview. Would I ‘pass’? Was I ‘good enough? Would I find out information I in fact wanted to know? I logged into Ancestry DNA, and the image below depicts what I found.

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A percentage breakdown and map of the author’s ethnicity estimates. Percentages of 5% and higher are included here. Benin/Togo: 30%; Nigeria: 23%; Cameroon/Congo: 14%; Senegal: 6%; Great Britain: 9%; Europe East: 5%

Eighty-one percent of my ancestry stems from West Africa, including people in regions that reside today in Benin, Togo, Nigeria, Cameroon, Congo, Senegal, Ivory Coast and Ghana. Also, nineteen percent of my ancestry is European, the largest region represented being Great Britain. The image is a recipe, in a sense, for who I am. I have generous helpings of the French and English-speaking African Gulf and a pinch of the United Kingdom. This data represents my ethnic background and I felt myself walking taller and prouder as I began to process what this new information meant. Wanting more from my latest revelation, I began to seek out people I trusted who were also of African descent to help me to make sense of my findings. Did this data merely confirm what I suspected all along? Or was there more to it? My investigation led me not only to amplify how ideas of identity and ancestry are interpreted, but also to uncover some of my own biases. I interviewed a series of people who helped me to understand the diversity of perspectives related to heritage and some of their nuances within.

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Bust of an African Woman by Charles-Henri-Joseph Cordier, 1851. Photo Credit: Mary Harrsch

The first of these was Dr. Assata Zerai. She’s an associate dean in the Graduate College, a sociology professor and the new, incoming director of the Center for African Studies. Like me, she is African American, having been born and raised here in the United States, and shares not only the legacy of slavery, but also common phenotypic markers of Sub-Saharan African ancestry: brown skin, highly textured hair and full lips. When I asked her if she had ever considered requesting a DNA test like mine, her response was, “Not really.” As a self-identified Pan-Africanist, acknowledging a connection to the continent and its diaspora was more of a priority to her than knowing what specific regions represented her ancestry. Dr. Zerai’s research, professorship and mentoring, after all, regularly engage discourses regarding black populations. Some of her forthcoming publications, for example, address questions of healthcare in Nigeria, clean water in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda and masculinity in Zimbabwe. For her, blackness is not necessarily something one verifies via chromosome counts and markers; it can manifest itself as a lifestyle through the people she cares for, the investigation she pursues and the scholarship she intentionally engages. For her, the likelihood of laboratory results meaningfully impacting the path she has already chosen is low.

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A mosquito net draped over a bed. Photo Credit: Beatrice Murch

In the same effort of accessing my community to help me to interpret my results, I sought out Victor Jones, the Visiting Recruiting Specialist in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science. Victor is from the Southside of Chicago, and, aside from being a professional wrestler and a major R&B aficionado, he is also a Christian minister. The preservation of the black family is a continual concern for him and encouraging young people towards higher education is an integral part of his work. Interestingly, Victor says, “I don’t call myself African American. I prefer ‘black.’ I can’t readily trace my roots back to Africa.” Moreover, if any visit to Africa involves exposure to extremely high temperatures or sleeping under mosquito nets, he is simply not interested. “I don’t want to be outside of my comfort zone,” he said, claiming he would never live abroad. It was perhaps here that I began to realize that there were some myths in my mind that I had not yet confronted. Having spent the last 13 years on college campuses, I blindly believed that everyone wanted to go abroad and that the major obstacles were the price of plane tickets and short-lived vacation time. Learning that someone I knew opted to pass on opportunities to see the world stopped me and caused me to check my assumptions. While the African continent represents part of our shared historical past, the need to intimately know it is not necessarily pressing to all black peoples. For Victor, ministering to local populations and creating strong, reliable bonds with them takes precedence over international travel.

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Sgt. Franklin Williams, home on leave from army duty, with Ellen Hardin. Baltimore, MD. 1942 Photo Credit: Black History Album

These two interactions reinforced the ideas that not only do African Americans—or blacks, depending upon one’s self-identification—eschew a monolithic set of preferences regarding what we call ourselves, but also the lack of information regarding our heritage does not necessarily make members of these groups feel less than whole. Some African American people are satisfied with their identities within a U.S. context. And, beyond that, a narrative that begins with slavery in North America is not necessarily a problematic one for those who ascribe to it. While understanding that there is an inextricable link to the “Motherland,” there is also a rich history and arguably separate identity here within the United States. Who am I to suggest otherwise? My reaching back into the annals (or lack thereof) of history in a search for self is just as valid as those who reach out and around them for the same purpose.

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A depiction of “Sankofa,” a term from the Akan language that is used within many African American circles to symbolize the value of knowing one’s history. Photo Credit: Shannon Rose

My interviews, however, did not stop there. I wanted to get some feedback from some people who came from African countries. Surely their experiences were different and therefore their opinions, too. I next spoke with Dr. Maimouna Barro who is the Associate Director of the Center for African Studies. She teaches a course called Introduction to Modern Africa and, after making wudu (an Islamic cleansing ritual) and completing her afternoon prayers, she relayed to me her thoughts on seeking ancestry. While Senegal is the place she calls home, she clarified that “If you dig deeper, I’m not just from Senegal.” She then gave me a brief, multi-generational genealogy that included places of origin like Guinea-Conkary and Mauritania. These revelations highlighted another gap in my thinking. For example, if an ethnic group moves from home to a new site, much like with the displacement of Native American tribes along the Oregon Trail, are place markers a reliable source of ethnic identity? For example, I was born in Los Angeles, but that tells nothing of my father’s immigration from Costa Rica and my mother’s family’s migration from Louisiana or anything about our ethnic identities. So what does it mean, then, to submit one’s DNA to a laboratory and to pay for a map that matches one to places? Do we not really want a match to people? Not the imaginary boundaries we have assigned to land?

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A map depicting the distribution and quantities of African people sold into slavery throughout the world. Photo Credit: Maddeler Halinde

Thomas Mukonde, a Zambian graduate assistant in the Undergraduate Library who works in both reference and instruction, was my last interviewee. He said that while tracing DNA seemed interesting, he would have to justify the cost. He knows, for example, that his parents represent the Mambwe/Lungu and Bemba ethnic groups and stated that he does not have a full need to explore his background as someone who is African American might. Moreover, based on his experiences as an undergraduate in Washington, D.C., he found that attempts to connect the African and African American student communities did not fully develop. “The only thing that unifies us is a history of oppression,” he said. “Africans in Africa were colonized. They were deliberately educated to become subjects or citizens. These education systems were very efficient. I don’t know how much Africa remains in the Africans who stayed on the continent.” Thomas suspected that within African American communities, despite and amidst centuries of deep repression, there was a preservation of African customs. Yet, history may have been overly effective in erasing some of these cultural manifestations on the African continent.

 

Work Author or Editor Available in our Library?
The Fire Next Time Baldwin, James Yes, as both an e-book and a print source.
Black Feminist Thought Collins, Patricia Hill A print copy is en route.
The Souls of Black Folk DuBois, W.E.B. Yes, as both an e-book and a print source.
Out of One, Many Africas: Reconstructing the Study and Meaning of Africa Martin, William G. and Michael O. West Yes, as both an e-book and a print source.
How to Be Black Thurston, Baratunde Yes, as a print source.
The Mis-Education of the Negro Woodson, Carter Godwin Yes, as both an e-book and a print source.
Slavery and Social Death Patterson, Orlando Yes, as both an e-book and a print source.

As with all of my intellectual inquiries, Project Genesis has brought me more questions and conversations than answers. What I found, however, was that at the same time that I was trying to dispel myths, I was working from a space of assertions I assumed to be true, and my investigation continually challenged them. How do I feel about my results? I was surprised that Benin and Togo factored in at all because in my mind, I had mistakenly ‘othered’ the regions as they are Francophone and not Anglophone; I was expecting a large swath of my ancestry to be West African, and I was right; I had an inkling that part of me was Nigerian, and that was correct; I was also a little disappointed to not have any Native American group show up in my results as my family lore suggested, as it does in many African American families, that we shared a lineage with some group(s) indigenous to the Americas. Some lingering queries address many issues: If they were to submit DNA samples, would their results be identical to mine? If I am 19% European, does that mean I’m white? Were I to ‘return’ to West Africa, what would await me there? This process taught me anew that the words ‘history’ and ‘identity’ more often than not should take on plural forms, and also that speaking to trusted people is key to finding one’s truth. For more sources for research on black ancestry, as recommended by the interviewees in this article and the author, see the table above. Below you will find an advertisement for a University of Illinois course led by David Wright that explores some of the same issues raised in this piece. Click here on Project Genesis: The Quest to see the first half of this series and be sure to like the International and Area Studies Library’s Facebook page for more articles like these.

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An advertisement for the cross-listed ENGL 274/AFRO 298 course with study abroad component that explores slavery and identity led by David Wright at the University of Illinois.

Africana Librarians Council meets in Urbana-Champaign

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Information workers from the Africana Librarians Council pose outside Illini Union on their last evening in Urbana-Champaign

Chicago, Illinois. Bloomington, Indiana. Madison, Wisconsin. New Haven, Connecticut. Boston, Massachusetts. Los Angeles, California. From far and wide the Africana librarians came. Meeting for their biannual reunion, some 25 librarians, all members of the Africana Librarians Council (ALC), gathered in Urbana-Champaign over the April 24th weekend. Organized by Dr. Atoma Batoma, the International and Area Studies’ current African Studies librarian, and Al Kagan, Dr. Batoma’s predecessor, the weekend was full of important discussions of the group’s progress and priorities, entertainment, networking and touring.

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Current African Studies librarian Dr. Atoma Batoma addresses his guests during Thursday afternoon’s reception.

The librarians were warmly received at a Thursday reception in the International and Area Studies Library where University Dean Wilkin addressed the group. The meet and greet gave the information professionals a chance to say hello to familiar faces and to meet new ones. It was the evening’s events, however, that further warmed the tone of the affair. Guests were invited to the campus’ YMCA for dinner where traditional African foods including chicken yassa, a dish native to Senegal and common in other Western and coastal regions of Francophone Africa, and jollof rice were served. Local band Super Mazumzum played popular covers by African musical artists Miriam Makeba (South Africa), Fela Kuti (Nigeria) and Rex Lawson (Nigeria). Zambian graduate student at the University of Illinois Chipo Sakufiwa and guitarist Rick Deja led the group’s musical renditions.

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Traditional West African dishes of chicken yassa and jollof rice are served at the Thursday evening reception.

After dinner, University of Illinois entomology professor Dr. Barry Pittendrigh and Assistant Director of the Center for African Studies Dr. Julia Bello Bravo gave an enlightening presentation on their work with and for Scientific Animations Without Borders (SAWBO). SAWBO aims to provide animated, educational content in video format to people and communities whose literacy levels are diverse and whose information needs are high. Taking advantage of a strong trend known as “m-learning,” the use of mobile devices to address a variety of learning needs, Dr. Pittendrigh encouraged audience members to download and test SAWBO’s application. He emphasized the versatility of this platform in developing accessible media related to healthcare, women’s empowerment and agriculture in a variety of languages spoken around the world. Lastly, Extension System In Your Wallet (ESIYOW) was distributed to all in attendance which comes in the shape of a business card and serves as a highly portable and convenient USB drive for quick and easy information transfer.

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Scientific Animations Without Borders (SAWBO) representatives distribute unconventional USB drives to ALC guests.

The following day, the ALC’s formal meetings began. Head of the International and Area Studies Library Steve Witt spoke to the audience regarding his experience overseeing the merging of multiple different area studies groups that were once largely autonomous. These include (Sub-Saharan) African Studies, North African and Middle Eastern Studies, Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies, South Asian Studies, Chinese Studies, Korean Studies, Latin American and Caribbean Studies and a few more. This compiling of area studies inspired questions regarding professional buying trips supported by the university, the differences between area studies librarians and subject specialists and how to adequately provide support staff for such a diverse library. Other agenda items included the discussion of developing an online bibliography of Africa course that would be available to students at multiple universities, Title VI (a government source of funds stemming from the Higher Education Act of 1965), and upcoming panels and committees.

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Head of the International and Area Studies Library Steve Witt addresses the Africana Librarians Council.

The next evening, Al Kagan invited everyone to his home where the next generation of Africana librarians was discussed, Sakufiwa returned to serenade the group and dinner was catered by local restaurant Layalina Mediterranean Grill. This event was one of Dr. Batoma’s and Al Kagan’s many collaborations, an important one being  their 2014 joint publication Reference Guide to Africa which was acknowledged earlier this month by the Research and Publication Committee (RPC). Al Kagan’s strong structure for the regularly offered U of I course LIS 530M Bibliography of Africa lives on and is led through the Graduate School of Library and Information Science (GSLIS). Overall, the weekend was spent in enriching communion, honoring the important work Africana and area studies librarians and library workers carry out in representing a continent, its histories and its many peoples.

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Africana librarians from various institutions of higher education chat post-council meetings at Al Kagan’s home.

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Singer Chipo Sakufiwa and musician Rick Deja of band Super Mazumzum perform at Al Kagan’s home.

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From left to right: Former African Studies Librarian Al Kagan, current Vice Provost for International Affairs and Global Strategies Reitumetse Obakeng Mabokela and U of I Graduate School of Library and Information Science (GSLIS) Alumna Inka Olasade

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Current U of I graduate students from left to right: Mbhekiseni “Bheki” Madela from South Africa, Telamisile Mkhatshwa from Swaziland and Tumani Malinga from Botswana

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From left to right: Current U of I Kenyan doctoral student Anne Lutomia (Kenya), Associate Director of the Center for African Studies Maimouna Barro from Senegal and her daughter

“Black Flag Boricuas: Anarchism, Antiauthoritarianism, and the Left in Puerto Rico, 1897 – 1921″

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“The black flag of anarchism . . . expresses one’s solidarity with those most abused by the state, by capital, and by religion. . . . ‘Boricua’ . . . [is] more about a collective identity of resistance – in short, a distinct form of antiauthoritarianism rooted in the island people’s collective nationality against colonialism” (Shaffer, 15 &17). “Black Flag Boricuas”

When people think of anarchism, the most common generalizations consist of youth destroying private property, disregard for authority, and a world burning in chaos. Yet, in spite of these misunderstandings, the general public forgets that anarchism stemmed from the struggles of marginalized communities throughout the world.  In “Black Flag Boricuas: Anarchism, Antiauthoritarianism, and the Left in Puerto Rico, 1897 – 1921,” by Kirwin R. Shaffer, the author explores the role of anarchism in the Caribbean and its interrelationship with other Puerto Ricans and other activist groups in Cuba, Florida, and New York. This book also serves to unite readers under a black flag that evokes the humanity of people affected by authoritarian forms of government.

Spanish colonialism, U.S. invasion, poor living conditions and low wages are some of the ingredients that led to the dissemination of radical consciousness and change in Puerto Rico. Anarchist thought was facilitated by the arrival of Spanish migrant workers to the island in the late 19th century. Their message resonated with the tobacco industries of Caguas, Bayamon, and San Juan, Puerto Rico which had “most of the leading anarchist writers and activists” (Shaffer, 3). Places like Havana, Tampa, and New York were also known tobacco cities; destinations that provided Puerto Rican migrants with more opportunities for income and for networking and mobilizing with fellow comrades. In order to build solidarity with and learn from transnational anarchists, anarchists in the island began to publish newspapers and write articles for American and Cuban periodicals “which helped to internationalize the movement wherever they went and to discuss international topics” (Shaffer, 5). These are just a few of the examples of dissidence that represent Puerto Ricans’ struggle for autonomy from foreign and domestic exploitation and social injustice.

“Black Flag Boricuas” provides a breadth of information and is a good introduction to the history of anarchism in the late 19th and early 20th century Puerto Rico.

If you are interested in learning more about anarchism around the world, you can check out “Zen Anarchism: The Egalitarian Dharma of Uchiyama Gudo” from the International and Area Studies Library. It is a collection of translated essays by a Zen Buddhist priest and anarcho-socialist activist that provide an interesting insight into Buddhist history in Japan.

Also, the main library has a book titled “Anarchism & The Mexican Working Class, 1860 – 1931” which looks at the impact of anarchism on the Mexican working class. Moreover, the main library has a collection of English periodicals, “Anarchy,” that focus on issues of unemployment, racism, gender discrimination, poverty, militarization, and other related issues within Europe and beyond. For something less broad, you might also be interested in learning about anarcho-feminism from “Anarcho-Feminism: From Siren and Black Rose, Two Statements.”

Finally, another recommended book which you can check out through I-Share is “Eyes to the South: French Anarchists and Algeria,” about Algerian and French anarchists during the Algerian revolution. Furthermore, check out one of our oldest bibliographies on this subject “Bibliographie de l’anarchie” by Max Nettalu.

Happy Reading & Power to the Reader.

Resource Spotlight: Compact Memory, German-Jewish Digitized Periodicals

Welcome to another installment of the Glocal Notes “Resource Spotlight” series! In these posts, we highlight digital resources relevant to international and area studies. These posts have two goals: 1) familiarize researchers with resources, often published abroad, that they may not be aware of, but which could be of tremendous use to their research and 2) explain how to use these resources, saving researchers’ time and allowing them to concentrate their efforts on evaluating the resources’ usefulness in the context of their research question. This week’s post is about Compact Memory, a digitization initiative of the Goethe University Frankfurt, which provides free, online access to important German-Jewish periodicals.

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Masthead of the January 10, 1986 issue of Berliner Vereinsbote, one of the digitized newspapers available through the Compact Memory digital collection.

Compact Memory provides online access to 172 important newspapers and journals published by the German-Jewish community. Compact Memory is an initiative of the Goethe University Frankfurt University Library and a part of their rich digital collection of Judaica materials. This collection includes resources on a variety of subjects, including academic texts, religion, politics, literature, and social life, published during the years 1768-1938. As such, it is an invaluable resources to researchers, in Jewish Studies and beyond, interested in these topics. This resource is both freely available and easy to use.

The impact of this digitization effort is well summarized on the Compact Memory project’s “About” page:

Due to the condition of many historical journals, as well as wartime losses, the originals of these journals are no longer to be found in any library in this completeness. The journals – and fragments of journals – have been digitized and assembled from different library collections, and are now almost completely available electronically for the first time. They can be printed or saved; some titles have been edited with OCR and are full text searchable. Almost 80.000 single articles of more than 10.000 authors are registered bibliographically. Currently the amount of digitized pages adds up to 750.000. Missing volumes are continuously complemented, and further relevant journals of the German speaking area are added.

The project’s efforts to make these materials available is a fantastic example of the potential of digitization to offer access to materials in unprecedented ways. As it draws on holdings from multiple libraries, Compact Memory is able to provide access to resources beyond what would be available at any single library. Additionally, given the fragile condition of this material (newspapers, in particular, have a relatively short shelf life), digitization efforts ensure that the content of these texts can be accessed and used by many researchers without further compromising the materials themselves, ultimately enabling their long-term preservation. Finally, these digitized archives are integrated into the Europeana Digital Library, an online portal that facilitates access to hundreds of digital collections from across Europe. This integration not only allows users unaware of Compact Memory to discover these resources, but also allows researchers to simultaneously discover relevant materials from other collections. (For more information about Europeana, see our Glocal Notes post from April 2014.)

As mentioned above, the texts in the Compact Memory project can be identified through the Europeana Digital Library portal. Additionally, it is possible to search for relevant articles through the Goethe University Frankfurt Digital Collections search interface. (You can search just Compact Memory, or search all of the library’s digital collections.) The interface offers pretty robust advanced search options and, as mentioned above, some of the materials in Compact Memory are OCR-enabled, which means it is possible to search the full-text of the articles themselves for keywords. For those not yet in-the-know, OCR stands for Optical Character Recognition. This means that the image files of the scanned articles have been digitally processed, with the help of some pattern recognition algorithms, to identify the text represented within. While this is something that we, as human readers, can do easily, it is not necessarily a trivial task for a computer. As such, OCR texts often contain mistakes, filling in gibberish where the algorithm was thrown off by a printing mistake, irregular font, or other obstacle. However, these tools are being improved constantly and they give researchers an additional point of entry into the materials.

While these search options are very rich, the ability to browse this collection will be of particular interest to researchers. All 172 periodicals in Compact Memory can be browsed through a robust interface, and it is also possible to browse these materials within the larger Judaica collection. When browsing Compact Memory, the default setting is to display the periodicals in alphabetical order, by title. However, it is possible to toggle the sort to display titles by Author/Collaborator, Place, Printer/Publisher, or Year. Additional nuance is provided by several filters, found on the right side of the screen, that allow researchers to limit their results by Language (Hebrew, German, or English), Publisher, Place of Publication (currently, 44 cities are represented), and Document Type (journal or newspaper). Each issue of a title is available as a downloadable PDF file, allowing researchers to access the materials both online and off, on whatever device is they prefer (including printing out the sections they wish to examine in depth). Many researchers using digitized materials may already be painfully aware that this portability is not always the case. Often, online collections restrict the user to a clunky online-only viewing interface, limit printing, or provide off-line viewing only through proprietary software. Finally, each record is linked directly to a record for that item University Library’s online catalog, providing an additional access point to other materials that may be of interest.

Overall, Compact Memory is a fantastic resource for scholars working in Jewish Studies. Not only does it provide access to a rich collection of otherwise hard-to-find journals and newspapers, it does so through a robust interface that allows researchers to easily locate and access the materials they need.