Project Genesis: The Quest

It all started in 2006 when Harvard professor Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. made a documentary series about tracing one’s roots to Africa. I thought, “Oh, that’d be nice to know.” Like the overwhelming majority of African Americans, I don’t know where exactly my ancestors come from on the African continent of 54 countries just across the Atlantic Ocean. Despite my interest in pursuing my query, I wasn’t prepared to put any money behind my curiosity.

Harvard University professor Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a prominent researcher in African American genealogy. Photo Credit: PBS Press Room

Then last year, CNN anchor Michaela Pereira joined the quest, traveling to Jamaica and publishing the story of discovering her roots. This was another, welcome reminder of something I intended to get back to. I was only convinced, however, when other African American, U of I graduate students like myself, LaKisha David and Jarai Carter, told me that they, too, had participated. They’d sent their DNA samples into laboratories and gotten better, more reliable clues about their places of origin. So, when I had enough money, I decided to join them on the journey, too.

CNN newscaster Michaela Pereira who traced her genealogy to Jamaica. Photo Credit: Varon Panganiban

African American history is complicated. Not only does an expansive ocean stand between me and Africa, but also a few centuries of slavery. As you might imagine, because many records have been lost or were never kept, beyond my grandparents’ generation, genealogical lineages are rather blurry. It’s near impossible to not feel a sense of loss because of this. Yet, history, as it is wont to do, and biology, too, offer suggestive remnants that lend some clues about the past.

For example, I know my mother’s mother is from Louisiana, so I assume my matrilineal lineage traces back to that Southern state. Moreover, my mother’s fair skin and hazel eyes seem to suggest a European ancestor.  My father’s skin is a deep brown and he comes from the English-speaking Afro-Costa Ricans of the Atlantic Coast. While I’m pretty certain his great-grandparents were Jamaican, I don’t know where they came from before that.

So this is how Project Genesis was born. It entails my effort to employ the DNA-tracking services offered by ancestry.com to determine greater specificities about who I am and to document the process so others who choose to pursue a similar route can form realistic expectations of the experience. On March 14, 2015, I paid $99.57 for an ancestryDNA kit. It arrived on my doorstep on March 21. It came in a little white and green box, not much larger than the palm of my hand, and inside there were two tubes—one was for collecting my saliva, and another containing a blue stabilizing solution for the DNA sample. It will take a minimum of six weeks before I get my results.

Chromosomes. Photo Credit: Ruth Lawson

Before we label these services, however, as an “answer-call, cure-all” when it comes to questions of African American identity, origin and belonging, let me share some of the research I did before embarking on this adventure which truly taught me to temper my expectations. After speaking with LaKisha and Jarai about their experiences, I learned that this test, like any other, has its limitations and therefore must be contextualized, specifying what it can and cannot do.

LaKisha is a Ph.D. student in Urban and Regional Planning who is in her thirties. She has spent some $800 with three different services in order to have her and her family members’ DNA tested. Collectively, the services were carried out by ancestryDNA, 23andme and African Ancestry. LaKisha freely admits that each service has its plusses and minuses. As she describes it, what the test attempts to do is to match one’s DNA to a database of DNA that is already held. That is, it tries to match one’s DNA to a group of people that is currently alive today. The crux is that in order to be effectively matched, the database needs to be rather comprehensive. For example, if no tests were conducted for the people living, say, along the coast of the Gambia, it’s impossible to have a result yield a reliable match to that particular population.

The Gambia is the dark blue country on the west coast of the continent.

“Do not do this test if you are looking for a place of origin,” she cautions. The results provide a map that highlights the countries where one’s DNA has resonance. In Lakisha’s case, (and Raven Symone’s), multiple countries are highlighted: Cameroon, Gabon, Nigeria, et al. So, in this case, when five to ten places show up as matches, the results aren’t as conclusive as one could hope. As a matter of fact, the test seems perhaps most helpful in telling one where he or she is not from: the Maghreb*, East and Southern Africa, for example. However, that information based on history alone may already be evident to us. The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade we know was primarily carried out along the coast of West Africa. Is it worth it to pay $100 to have a test confirm that, yes, African Americans are indeed of mixed West African descent?

The colored areas identify major African regions where slave trading occurred between the 15th and 19th centuries. Photo Credit: Grin 20.

It would appear that the novel information provided pertains to one’s ancestry that is not African. LaKisha’s background, for example, included results that were 87% African, 5% Native American and 4% European, and this is where LaKisha offers some advice: “It might be more effective to have your oldest living relative tested.” This way, the expectation would be for fewer countries to be named in the results as the oldest relative is closer to the source of origin. Also, she says, the more African people who take the test, the more accurate results will be. However, what motivation does a Senegalese woman living in Senegal within her Senegalese community have to take a test that costs $100 and ultimately tells her that she is Senegalese? “But do you see the potential?” LaKisha asked. There’s potential, I told her, but the process may not be practical. Asking African people to submit their DNA to a database so African Americans can know more about themselves may simply be asking a lot.

After carrying out African Ancestry’s Patriclan test on an older, male relative, LaKisha learned that her lineage was traced to the Akele people of Gabon. This information appeared on one document and specified which of her relative’s chromosomes indicated the connection. What this sheet of paper did not do was provide the names of definite familial relatives alive in Africa. It did not state how to find other Akele people in the Midwestern, North American region where we currently reside. It also did not provide a profile on the Akele that showed them to be nomadic people or urban dwellers, tall and sinewy or short and slight or patriarchal or matriarchal. It would seem, then, that there is a real risk, then, in these tests becoming predatory. While the companies profit, do African Americans get the answers and information they seek? While we observe a viable business model, in the end only the faintest inklings of information are provided.

I also spoke to Jarai who is a Ph.D. student in informatics and in her twenties. Her results from ancestry.com indicate that 55% of her background is European and 43% is African, which, was not entirely a surprise to her given her mother is a white American and her father is a black American. Her advice? “Don’t do it if you expect to be 100% black,” she said. “There were actually people angry that they have white heritage.” Given the legacy of the slave trade, many African Americans have a mixed heritage that may or may not be perceptible based on their phenotype. The genotype, however, which is what we are testing, may reveal some unexpected information.

An interracial couple. Photo Credit: Sharon Samples

Jarai says she was “hoping to find out more about relatives, but only got pointed in a general direction. She admits, too, that the database is limited. However, seeking out this process brought her family together. Lakisha also said that generally hers was a positive experience and is happy to have a starting point for further research. What we all agree on is that this type of adventure can take a lifetime of mapping, digging and testing, and apparently, I’ve signed up for step one. Stay tuned for the second feature, “The Reveal,” in the The Project Genesis series.

*The Maghreb refers to Arabic-speaking countries in the northwestern region of the African continent. It includes Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, among other countries and is often distinguished from sub-Saharan Africa. Photo Credit: Connormah

 

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Resource Spotlight: Türkiye Bibliyografyası

Do you research Turkish language or culture? Are you curious to know what materials are being published in Turkey? This Glocal Notes post is for you! This post is an introduction to Türkiye Bibliyografyası (Bibliography of Turkey in English). This fantastic online resource is maintained by the National Library of Turkey, the body responsible for compiling the national bibliography in that country. The recently revamped Türkiye Bibliyografyası online portal provides access to the national bibliography, as well as several other bibliographic resources, through an intuitive and well-designed interface. As of March 2015, there is no English-language interface for the portal, so prepare to put your Turkish language skills to good use. Below are some details about the various components of the online portal, as well as the options they offer.

Türkiye Bibliyografyası

Screen capture of the Turkish National Bibliography online portal.

Screen capture of the Bibliography of Turkey online portal.

One of the key components of the portal is access to the digital editions of the comprehensive Turkish National Bibliography. This monthly publication covers the period from 2003, when the national bibliography transitioned to an online-only publication, to the present. However, as of March 2015, the latest available issue covers July 2012. To access this material, click on the blue and orange Bibliografyalar panel at the top of the screen and select the appropriate month. The bibliography is available as a PDF or as a compressed file containing a searchable instance of the database. (The .zip file contains an executable FileMaker, Pro file and all of the necessary support files.)

Each issue of the bibliography is divided into three sections for books, periodicals, and audiovisual materials with the entries in each section listed by subject. The following information is available in each entry: title of the work, author, publisher, series, and subject. Each issue also includes the following indexes: authors, corporate bodies, book titles, periodical titles, audio-visual materials, ISBN and ISSN.

Türkiye Makaleler Bibliyografyası

Türkiye Makaleler Bibliyografyası, a bibliography of articles published in Turkish journals, is a new addition to the portal. It contains records of 874,187 articles culled from 5,073 journals published in the Republic of Turkey, and covering the period 1923 to the present. A number of advanced search options are available, including searching by article title, journal title, subject (you can choose from a list of possible subjects), ISSN, and year of publications (you may also specify a range of years). A limited number of filters and sorting options can further specify your results set, and there is an option to email selected records to yourself or someone else. Please note, facsimiles of the article bibliographies for 2003-2012 are also available through the Bibliografyalar interface described above.

Kişi Bibliyografyaları

The portal also contains a number of Kişi Bibliyografyaları, literally short bibliographies, highlighting materials by and about specific individuals that feature prominently in Turkish cultural history. These bibliographies include: M.Akif Ersoy, Mevlana, Hacı Bektaş Veli, Nazım Hikmet, Yahya Kemal Beyatlı, Kaşgarlı Mahmud, and Yusuf Nabi. Also available is the Eski Harfli Basma Türkçe Eserler Bibliyografya, a bibliography of 37,359 different Turkish works published in Arabic, Greek and Armenian characters between 1584-1986.

Türkiye Bibliyografyası is a great resource for researching Turkish history and culture. If you’re interested in learning more, there are a number of resources available through the International and Area Studies Library. Just stop by 321 Main Library or send your question to internationalref [at] library.illinois.edu!

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The Amish of Illinois

Poster advertising the "Simply Amish" furniture brand

Poster advertising the “Simply Amish” furniture brand

Think for a moment what the word “worldly” connotes in its modern usage. Maybe in there are ideas about high levels of formal education; sophistication; open-mindedness about cultures, languages, and ways different from our own. All in all, these can be seen as quite positive attributes, right? In some circles, one might fondly refer to a well-traveled and/or multilingual friend as “worldly,” perhaps with a slight air of envy at their mobility and adventuresome lifestyle. On a “world-class” university campus, “worldliness” as an ideal state of mind and of action has become intertwined with such institutions’ mission statements. And, of course, not without good reason, considering the highly interconnected and transnational nature of modernity.

Now compare this to another interpretation: Worldliness might entail all of those positive attributes mentioned above, sure. But it might also come at the cost of breaking with tradition, with isolating oneself from one’s family and home community. With being, as it were, too attached to this world when not only one’s identity as a member of a group is at stake, but also one’s eternal status in the afterlife.

This is the view of the Amish.

Thus, when something – an act, a technological device, a manner of conducting oneself – is considered “worldly” by practitioners of the Amish faith, it is often considered better avoided. Not judged as evil, necessarily, but not deemed as useful in the grand scheme of things. Perplexing to our modern sensibilities? Certainly. But this is the nature of the Amish outlook and this culture and its folkways have thrived intact, in spite of the dominant society on the North American continent, for over 250 years by maintaining such views.

Most, if not all of the reactions I received to the news that I was conducting research on the Amish belied a certain befuddlement and overall mystery about them. Certain traits of the Amish that were listed off either anecdotally or from hearsay turned out to be mildly to wildly inaccurate. Contrary to some comments I heard, “technology” in and of itself is not eschewed by the Amish, but rather the effects that certain kinds of technology can have on a given Amish community. Thus, a car is not inherently sinful or evil and in fact many Amish rely on non-Amish (“Englisch”) coworkers for rides to and from work. But the potentially negative effect that a car has on one’s bond with the home community means that its ownership is clearly verboten. What is or isn’t permitted is determined by each congregation’s Ordnung, or “order” in German, meaning the community’s unwritten set of rules and regulations (Mabry 2008: 10).

So who in the world are the Amish, really? Strictly speaking, they are Anabaptist Christians (i.e., practitioners of adult as opposed to infant baptism), descended primarily from immigrants from the post-Reformation, German-speaking regions of central Europe, including areas of what are today France, Germany, Switzerland, and Austria. However, since the 1930s, there are no longer any Amish in Europe (Nolt 1992: 182-3). As for other Anabaptist groups, relatively small numbers of Mennonites remain in Europe, according to the Mennonite World Conference World Directory, 2012. Those Amish who maintain the practices of strict shunning, avoidance of most technological innovations, holding church services in congregants’ homes (as opposed to meetinghouses or churches) and in the High German language, and plain dress are considered Old Order Amish, as opposed to other sects that have changed more drastically over time.

The Amish take their demonym from the surname of the preacher Jakob Ammann (1644 – c.1720), who broke away from the less socially conservative Mennonites in 1693. In particular, Ammann promoted the strict practice of socially shunning church members considered to be living in unrepentant sin. Before this schism, however, Anabaptists in general were persecuted by mainstream European society throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, leading to a galvanized sense of both their religious and ethnic unity. An early avoidance of all things “worldly” (a prime example being violence in general) led these early “radical reformers” to adopt strict pacifism, self-sufficiency, and, overall, a highly cautious perception of the world-at-large. Later, when both Amish and Mennonites sought further opportunities to practice their beliefs in peace, they arrived at the same conclusion as many other European conscientious objectors of the 17th and early 18th centuries: emigration to the New World. In particular, these groups chose one of the most culturally and ideologically tolerant of the thirteen British colonies in America, Pennsylvania, recently founded by the progressive-minded Quaker William Penn. Groups identifying as Amish began arriving as early as 1737 (Nolt: Ch. 1-3).

Over the course of the 18th and 19th centuries, the intrinsically rural Amish avoided the burgeoning, industrialized urban centers of colonial and post-colonial America and gradually spread westward, covering a large swath of territory in not only Pennsylvania, but also Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa. While there are small Amish communities in other areas (including the Canadian province of Ontario), in general they followed the predominantly ethnic-German wave of immigration across the Midlands region of the continental United States (Woodard 2011: Ch. 8).

Established between 1864-66, the Amish communities of central Illinois are concentrated in Moultrie and Douglas counties, about 35-40 miles south and west of Champaign-Urbana (Nolt: 188-9). This predominantly Old Order Amish settlement of around 4,000 can be found along Route 133 between the towns of Arthur and Arcola. According to Anabaptist expert Donald Kraybill, it is the ninth-largest Amish settlement in North American (Mabry 2008: 6). Congregations of more modernized Mennonites are also located nearby, as well as interspersed among them.

I visited this area by bicycle recently and took a few snapshots (I avoided any close-up shots of Amish people, as they strongly prefer not to be photographed – according to their beliefs it promotes vanity):

"Dutch" in the modern context is a misnomer but in an earlier sense referred to the Amish-Mennonites as ethnically and linguistically German (Deutsch or Deitsch)

Billboard at the entrance to Amish country between Arcola and Arthur, Illinois. “Dutch” in the modern context is a misnomer for the Amish-Mennonite people, but in an earlier sense more accurately referred to them as being ethnically and linguistically German (i.e., Deutsch in High German or Deitsch in the local vernacular, also known as “Pennsylvania Dutch”).

Horses and buggies coexist with automobiles as tradition and modernity continue to overlay each other in increasingly complex ways

On the outskirts of Arthur, IL, horses and buggies coexist with automobiles. Amish tradition and “Englisch” modernity continue to overlap each other in increasingly complex ways.

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Founded in 1890 in Sugarcreek, Ohio, the Budget provides weekly, highly localized news to the Amish and Mennonite communities throughout North America and the world. It represents an otherwise archaic form of mass print journalism, in that the news is reported almost exclusively by the paper’s readership itself, via “scribes” or writers representing individual Amish or Mennonite communities (Nolt: 202-3).

What I found while riding my modern bicycle alongside horses and buggies constructed according to centuries-old methods was a place where the past and the present intersect in notably profound ways. Yet, to the Amish, certain things do not change because they needn’t change. According to Steven M. Nolt, a recognized expert on Mennonite and Amish history,

“While the larger Western world seeks peace in bigger weapons, happiness in newer, larger and ever more material things, and disregards extended family and community in the search for individual self-fulfillment, the Amish continue to espouse such unpopular values as ‘turning the other cheek,’ living with less and working for a common good. Faith in God and God’s activity in the world through the church has marked Amish life as noticeably different from an American society bemused by ‘progress,’ but unable to find a purpose or meaning in the resulting activity” (283).

As I perused the items in Yoder’s Lamps, Antiques and Collectibles in downtown Arthur, I overheard the proprietor speaking in the unfamiliar tones of Pennsylvania “Dutch” to his employees, reminding me that the melting pot of the United States has not yet – nor may ever – come to a full boil. On my way out of town, an elderly Mennonite woman who repairs sewing machines and hardcover books explained to me that though the Mennonite church no longer uses High German in its liturgy (as the Old Order Amish church does), she is bilingual in the same Low German dialect as that of her Amish neighbors. “We have the same roots,” she confirmed. Since much of the modern American (and, to a certain extent, Canadian) Midwest was originally populated by immigrants from the same areas of German-speaking central Europe as both the Amish and Mennonites originally hailed, what’s clear is that adherence to or distance from traditional religious practices has meant the difference between maintaining distinct ethno-linguistic identity or otherwise assimilating to the culture of the Anglo-American majority.

Whether we, as outsiders, wish to view the Amish (and Mennonites) as models of Christianity, as paragons of simple, family-values-based living and local entrepreneurship, as leaders in environmental sustainability, or perhaps even as stubbornly anachronistic outliers to the norm, what’s clear is that their presence and impact add a fascinating element to our understanding of the North American cultural landscape. And as pertains to the European historical roots of this continent’s ideological and religious heritage, they most certainly cannot be ignored.


 References (click links for UIUC Library catalog records):

Mabry, R. (2008). The Amish of Illinois’ HeartlandChampaign, IL: The News-Gazette.

Nolt, S. (1992). A History of the AmishIntercourse, PA: Good Books.

Woodard, C. (2011). American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North AmericaNew York: Viking Books.

For more information, see:

Beiler, J. (2009). Think No Evil: Inside the Story of the Amish Schoolhouse Shooting…and Beyond. New York: Howard Books.

Hurst, C. and McConnell, D. (2010). An Amish Paradox: Diversity and Change in the World’s Largest Amish Community. United States: Johns Hopkins University Press.

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