African American Ancestry: Recent Strides
Although the United States has attempted to erase its hideous past of African slavery, African Americans continue to face a wide variety of challenges, setbacks, and shades of subtle-to-blatant racism on a daily basis – like police racial profiling, pop culture stereotypes, and workplace ethnic discrimination. There are several ways Black people in America are set up to fail and continuously treated like a low priority, and one major affront to the community is lack of access to genealogy. There are quite a few reasons for this, but our country’s legacy of slavery and discrimination have rendered many African American ancestry records incomplete or unavailable – especially records that were established before the 1870 U.S. Census. Because of this, African Americans have struggled to be able to access their genetic history, and African American DNA testing has been difficult to complete. However, an increasing number of genetic testing platforms have worked hard on this very issue, with the ultimate goal of making African American ancestry more easily traced and understood. If you’re thinking about looking into an African American heritage test, now is a great time to do so. But first, you may want to start by exploring some African American history and culture to see if you might be able to uncover some clues to begin your search with.
A brief history of African Americans
African American history is difficult to boil down into a few points. Spanning over hundreds of years and riddled with strife and struggle, the African American ancestry experience has largely been defined by defiance: persistence in the face of oppression, a tireless battle for an equality that should never have had to be fought for in the first place, and rebellious Black joy. The need for equity and anti-racism is still alive and well, and people throughout the globe continue to fight for Black rights – just as some people continue to fight against them. In other words: African American history and the battle for equality is still developing. But these are some of the main defining moments of African American history that are often referred to in the context of a cultural study:
- African slavery was introduced to North America in 1619.
In 1619, white European settlers were overwhelmed by all of the Indigenous colonizing they were doing, so they decided to ship in some free labor by way of enslaved African people. After the first slave ship arrived in Jamestown, Virginia, slavery spread through the colonies like a hot new trend, and around 6-7 million enslaved African people were sent to America in the 18th century alone. By the end of the 18th century, many northern states had abolished slavery, but the damage had already been done, and slavery continued to thrive in the South well into the 19th century. This is the central reason that pursuing an African American heritage test or African American DNA testing is so difficult.
- Nat Turner led the only effective U.S. slave rebellion in history in 1831.
Virginia preacher Nat Turner made Southern history in August 1831 when he led the only effective slave rebellion in U.S. history. Along with a group of like-minded rebels, Turner killed his owners and set off to recruit more people. The group killed around 60 white people in two days before being captured by a band of armed resistance. Turner was on the run for six weeks before he was discovered and hung.
- The idea of abolitionism was introduced to the U.S. in 1831.
Despite living two centuries in America as enslaved people, African Americans clung to the idea of rebellion, and the early abolition movement was widely introduced to the country in 1831. These ideas were supported by the publication of abolitionist newspaper The Liberator, along with the beginnings of the Underground Railroad, which helped Southern slaves escape captivation via a series of safe houses.
- The Civil War erupted in 1861.
Racial tension came to a boil in the spring of 1861, when 11 southern states seceded from the Union to form the Confederate States of America. The War began as an effort to preserve the Union, but President Abraham Lincoln quickly realized the issue of slavery needed to be addressed, and he issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.
- The Emancipation Proclamation was formed in 1863.
The Proclamation called for the abolishment of African slavery in America, freeing millions of people throughout the country. The 13th Amendment, which officially abolished slavery, was adopted at the end of the Civil War in 1865. Despite this declaration, many Southern states did their best to keep African Americans enslaved, which is why Juneteenth is celebrated today: commemorating June 19, 1865, when enslaved African Americans in Galveston, Texas, finally learned of their freedom. Again, it was struggles like this that make pursuing an African American heritage test or African American DNA testing so difficult today.
- Jim Crow laws were enacted in 1877.
Although Black people were freed in 1865, the South continued to try what they could to make things difficult for African Americans. The “Jim Crow” laws were established in 1877, introducing segregation into public spaces like schools, depots, hotels, theaters, barber shops, restaurants, and more. These laws slid under the radar with the insulting term “separate but equal,” and continued to allow for complications related to African American DNA testing today.
- The NAACP was founded in 1909.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was introduced to the U.S. in 1909 – an organization designed to fight for true civil rights. It was initially established in Chicago, and had spread to over 400 national locations by 1921. One of its debut programs was a crusade against the lynching of Black people throughout America.
- Brown v. Board of Education outlawed public school segregation in 1954.
The U.S. Supreme Court delivered its verdict on Brown v. Board of Education, which ruled that racial segregation in public schools violated the Constitution’s 14th Amendment. This case reversed the idea of “separate but equal,” and also implied that other segregated locations were unlawful.
- The Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964.
The Civil Rights Act – which was introduced by President John F. Kennedy and carried out by President Lyndon B. Johnson – was known as the biggest piece of legislation to support the civil rights movement in America. It gave the federal government more power to protect citizens against discrimination on the basis of things like race, sex, religion, or national origin. It also guaranteed equal voting rights for citizens regardless of race.
- The Black Lives Matter movement was launched in 2013 after Trayvon Martin’s murderer was acquitted.
There are several other defining moments of Black history in the U.S., but one of the most recent is the Black Lives Matter movement. The movement began in 2013, with the unlawful killing of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin. Black Lives Matter, which has also become a popular hashtag for social media anti-racism pleas, continues to be prevalent throughout modern American culture, and acts as the most current movement for the modern fight for equality.
African American culture
Despite centuries of oppression, discrimination, and racism, African Americans have contributed greatly to American culture, and have made an incredible impact on global society. Here are some of the most notable facets of Black culture – both in the U.S. and throughout the world:
- The Harlem Renaissance
Black Americans have had a significant influence on American fashion, art, music, dance, theater, literature, politics, philosophy, and more – and all of this came to a powerful culmination in 1920s and 1930s Harlem. This time period was known as the “Harlem Renaissance”: an early 20th-century mecca of Black culture that continues to inspire millions of creators today. Notable figures from this time include: Langston Hughes, W.E.B. Du Bois, Duke Ellington, Bessie Smith, Marcus Garvey, Adelaide Hall, Gladys Bentley, and more.
African American literature is said to begin with late 18th-century writers, like Phillis Wheatley, Lucy Terry, and Jupiter Hammon. The genre was dominated by spiritual narratives, the stories of peoples’ escape from slavery and journey to freedom, and the Black experience in America.
- Ballroom Culture
The Ballroom Scene thrived in the late 20th-century in New York City, and continues to be prominent today. It began as a place for African American and Latino LGBTQ+ individuals to gather and express themselves creatively – safely away from the racism often experienced in mainstream drag queen pageant circuits. Inter-community racism continues to be an issue for LGBTQ+ people, which is why ballroom spaces are still so prevalent and necessary for queer People of Color.
- Soul Food
Influenced by West Africans and Southeastern Native Americans, soul food is the result of Black enslaved people having to get creative with the limited nutritional resources they were provided with by white plantation owners. The food style remains popular in the South (and throughout the nation) today, defined by well-known dishes like fried meats or fish, black-eyed peas, candied yams, macaroni and cheese, and stewed greens.