Can DNA Reveal Your Roots?
This fascinating story in TIME covers the story of a man named Brent Kennedy, who, growing up in Appalachia always believed himself to be of Irish-English descent. However, when watching the movie Lawrence of Arabia one night he realized that he looked more like the Arabs in the movie than the Brits. With dark hair and a complexion that tanned easily during the summer, Kennedy was struck with the realization that perhaps his ethnic identity was more diverse than he had imagined. He went to have a $100 DNA test done in which cells, extracted from the inside of his cheek were cultured and then put through gel electrophoresis to examine the DNA. Kennedy discovered that he was 45% Northern European and 25% Middle Eastern- a suspicion he had after watching Lawrence of Arabia.
At first when Kennedy revealed this information to his parents, they were quick to try to cover it up. But upon closer examination, Kennedy found that he was actually a part of an ethnic group known as the Melungeons who had lived in Appalachia for centuries. The Melungeons, whose exact ethnic identity is unknown, have darker complexions than white Caucasians and have faced a history of discrimination. Many members of Kennedy’s family had been banned from voting because of suspicious of their dark skin color. Kennedy was so intrigued with this history that he wrote a book detailing his heritage entitled The Melungeons.
Today thousands of Americans have taken after Kennedy by taking DNA tests to explore their ethnic heritage. Many commercial research laboratory tests offer such tests, and in a nation of such diversity (the melting pot) such tests are becoming increasingly popular.
Recently, talk show diva, Oprah Winfrey revealed that her DNA test showed her to be a Zulu. Winfrey endorsed the finding full heartedly, saying that she felt at home in South Africa among the Zulu people.
However, most experts are warning against taking the tests too seriously. Many have pointed out the inaccuracy of these tests. In Winfrey’s case, the evidence for her Zulu heritage is scant at best. For cultural groups such as the Zulu, many different ethnicities of Africans have been in and out of the tribe. It is most likely that Winfrey’s DNA resembled an individual in the laboratory’s database who claimed to be a Zulu. In addition, if Winfrey was a Zulu it is unlikely that she would be here as the Zulu have very little if any association with the North African slave trade.
Experts say that as databases containing data on DNA and ethnic types grow, so will the accuracy of the tests. To a nation that has long been one of unidentifiable ethnic backgrounds, there is a sense of adventure and curiousity as individuals wander out of their national identities as Americans and into a realm they have never been before- their ethnic identities.
TIME magazine, 7/ 11/05 pg. 11