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.

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Africana Librarians Council meets in Urbana-Champaign

librarians at illini union

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.

chicken yassa

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

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How international is the library at the U of I?

bookmark

A compilation of various book covers. Prepared by Graduate Hourly Sonal Modi

Friday afternoon, April 10, the International and Area Studies Library (IAS) hosted “Embracing Internationalization at the University Library:  Global Impact of Collections, Services and Expertise.” The event aimed to recognize the ways in which several members of and units in the University Library system support and create opportunities to serve an increasingly globalized patronage. Dean of Libraries and University Librarian John Wilkin opened the gathering by introducing the guest of honor, Dr. Reitumetse (ray-too-met-see) Obakeng Mabokela, the university’s Vice Provost for International Affairs and Global Studies. In her opening remarks, Dr. Mabokela shared that her experience as an international student began on the University of Illinois campus some two decades ago. She is originally from South Africa, and having worked in higher education for more than 15 years, she emphasized the importance of grooming graduates who are globally minded and can work both comfortably and competently all over the world. This goal became even more compelling in light of the fact that the U of I enrolls nearly 10,000 international students per year, a figure among the highest in the nation.

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Guest of honor and panelists. Photo Credit: Robert Sarwark

Following Dr. Mabokela’s remarks, the audience, which was comprised of various workers from the library system, heard from a select panel whose work and current projects meet the library’s mission to further internationalize U of I collections, collaborations and curricula. Head of the International and Area Studies Library Steve Witt highlighted the U of I’s Slavic Reference Service that is active and highly valued both domestically and abroad, receiving 3,000 reference questions per year. William Mischo, the Head of the Grainger Engineering Library, spoke of the International Institute for Carbon-Neutral Energy Research (I2CNER) which aims to facilitate technology transfer across the globe. The Associate Professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies in History Dr. John Randolph promoted the strong tradition of interdisciplinarity supported on campus as demonstrated by the Summer Research Laboratory. Assistant Director of the Mortenson Center Susan Schnuer described the center’s signature Associates’ Program which annually invites librarians from all corners of the world to meet, train and network together. And Global Studies Librarian Lynn Rudasill introduced the audience to the World Sustainable Development Web Archive, an initiative that aims to allow users to examine websites that may no longer be live.

Desafinados

Desafinado band performs at reception. Photo Credit: Robert Sarwark

After the panelists’ remarks, the meeting was followed by a warm and lively reception in the IAS Library which allowed for all in attendance to discuss their projects and to casually commune. Popular Brazilian covers were played by local band Desafinado and lead singer Elis Artz who works for the university’s Lemann Institute for Brazilian Studies. Caterers served authentic Brazilian hors d’oeuvres including marinated hearts of palm, pão de queijo (a Brazilian cheese bread) and chocolate truffles. Ultimately, the event effectively showcased the University Library’s commitment to embracing internationalization and how we support the collective mission of serving an increasingly globalized public. For more events and updates like these, follow us on the IAS Facebook page and visit us in the Main Library Room 321.

Three ladies

From left to right, South Asian Librarian Mara Thacker, IAS Graduate Hourly Katrina Spencer and Cataloger Qiang Jin. Photo Credit: Robert Sarwark

 

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Africana gets a makeover!

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With much help from the Information & Technology Department and hard work from various International and Area Studies Library employees, Africana Collections and Services is proud to announce the launch of its renovated website. This site serves as both a launching pad for Africana researchers throughout the U of I academic community and a place to advertise the wares of our print and digital collections. More than anything else, creators and contributors would like to facilitate access to a variety of Africana resources from one central and reliable location.

The Way Back Machine, a veritable internet archive, allows us to view former iterations of our site. The previous site, active as recently as 2013, relied on a simplistic layout with minimal colors and even fewer images.

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One goal in the new site’s construction was to make the interface more dynamic and visually appealing. The model used for the new site was based on the Middle East and North Africa Studies’ page design. Note the multiple tabs that are easy to navigate, the prominent imagery to represent the region and the columns that lead to additional resources of interest and newly acquired titles.

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The Africana group followed suit and developed a closely similar theme. Highlights on the new site include the scrolling RSS feed that highlights new titles in the catalog; the Dissertations & Theses page now features a downloadable pdf listing original works written by U of I graduate students from 2000-2014; and colorful  images representing both West and East Africa were culled from open source sites like Wikimedia Commons and Flickr to bring life to the E-Journals and Reference Resources pages.

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As we continue to adapt the site to meet our users’ needs, we discuss a series of additional possibilities. For example, users might benefit from more instruction on navigating the Africana Film Database. Some preliminary information, for the moment, regarding the scope of the collection is provided under Reference Resources -> Research Guides -> Africana Film Database. Additionally, we have the special challenge of adapting a proper code to display works from the Africana collection in our RSS feed in languages of African origin and colonial languages, too. English, French and Portuguese, to name a few European languages, are spoken widely across the continent. However, we are verifying our settings to allow us to select works from the following languages as well:

Afrikaans, Akan, Amharic, Arabic, Bambara, Bamileke, Banda, Basa, Beja, Bemba, Bini, Creoles and Pidgins, English-based, Creoles and Pidgins, French-based, Creoles and Pidgins, Portuguese-based, Cushitic, Dinka, Duala, Dyula, Efik, Ethiopic, Ewe, Ewondo, Fang, Fanti, Fon, Fula, Ga, Ganda, Hausa, Herero, Igbo, Ijo, Kamba, Kanuri, Kikuyu, Kinyarwanda, Kongo, Konkani, Kpelle, Kru, Kuanyama, Lamba, Lingala, Lozi, Luba-Katanga, Lunda, Luo, Malagasy, Mandingo, Masai, Mende, Mossi, Ndebele (Zimbabwe), Ndonga, Niger-Kordofanian, Nilo-Saharan, Northern Sotho, Nubian languages, Nyanja, Nyamwezi, Nyankole, Nyoro, Nzima, Oromo, Papiamento, Rundi, Sandawe, Sango, Serer, Shona, Sidamo, Somali, Songhai, Sotho, Sukuma, Susu, Swahili, Swazi, Tigre, Tigrinya, Timne, Tonga (Nyasa), Tsonga, Tswana, Tumbuka, Twi, Umbundu, Vai, Venda, Walamo, Wolof, Yoruba and Zulu

The site is as robust as ever with the same amount and variety of resources. Now, however, it is more attractive to the eye and more current in its scope of documentation when it comes to works produced by our very own peers. We encourage you to explore, and after visiting the home page, check out our African Studies Internet Portal for a broad array of diverse resources and Other Africana Libraries that can be of interest to you. We send special thanks to Helen Zhou, Sabrina Jaszi, Robert Sarwark, Jon Gorman, Robert Slater, Atoma Batoma and Joe Lenkart.

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