As an African-American, much of Regina Jackson’s identity has been well-defined through her entire life. Her ancestry, as far as she could tell, traced back to America’s dark history of slavery.
But one major part of her identity was missing before this week. The 47-year-old executive director of the East Oakland Youth Development Center, a UC Berkeley graduate and a mother of two, had no idea where her family comes from—which country, that is, was the origin of her ancestors.
Jackson, wearing a dress and matching headscarf of African yellow and green cloth, all tailored for her while she was visiting Nigeria, joined about 200 other people Tuesday night in Oakland’s Chabot Space Center. The advertised purpose of the event was a celebration of the launch of the Africa Channel, a digital station that focuses entirely on Africa programming, including television dramas, movies and news. The station has been broadcasting in the in Bay Area since January. A celebration had been planned sooner, but because of various delays, an event promoter said, the big party didn’t happen until this week.
But Regina Jackson—like retired attorney Robert Harris and Darleen Brooks, an Alameda County social services officer who is also sister of Oakland City Council member Desley Brooks—had a special reason for attending the event.
Comcast had offered to pay for DNA testing that would reveal from where exactly in Africa these three African-Americans descend. Though they sent in their samples weeks ago, they would not find out the results until the celebration at the space center. The Brooks testing was done on a sample provided by Desley Brooks, but since the sisters have identical lineage, the results would be the same for either one.
DNA is collected by cotton swabbing the inside of his cheek and mailing it to a laboratory. There, testing can trace the person’s maternal or paternal lineage to specific locations, such as the tribes from which they descend. Testing, which takes six to eight weeks, costs $100 to nearly $400, depending on the laboratory and level of testing.
Most slaves came to the Americas from West Africa, from as far north as Senegal to as far south as Angola. Jackson said she figured she descended from somewhere in that range, but beyond that was just a guess. “I know the majority of people really hail from West Africa,” Jackson said. “I was going to be excited no matter what.”
Could it be Sierra Leone? Jackson said her son, Noah Rasheed, 20, believed that’s where they descended from, because Jackson’s mother’s name, Izetta, is supposedly a common name in Sierra Leone.
Could it be Nigeria? Jackson taught a two-week leadership course there last year and felt quite at home with her host family.
Could it be Cameroon? While attending a conference last month in Washington, D.C., Jackson met Eric Chinje, manager of the World Bank Institute. She told the Cameroon native that she wanted to visit the country. “You can only go,” he told her, “if you are a real Cameroonian.”
Jackson said that most African-Americans, particularly those who descend from slaves, have never had a way to trace their lineage to a place more defined than the continent. Without the specific knowledge of their ancestry, African-Americans lack strong connections with their pasts, which she said affects personal identity. “For a lot of us,” she said, “it means being lost.”
Now, a lifelong mystery for Jackson was about to be answered. Shirley Neal, the Africa Channel’s executive vice president of programming and production, stood at a podium, ready to announce the results of DNA tests revealing the ancestries of Jackson, Harris and Brooks “This is such a substantial gift,” Jackson said. “It’s just going to bring me that much closer to my past.”
The whole idea of DNA testing emphasizes a theme of The Africa Channel—a means for African-Americans to connect with their ancestries. “The people in this area of California need something educational, something about their lineage and how we tie into this continent that is so rich,” said Linda Crayton, a Comcast regional director of government affairs.
Before the revealing of the DNA tests, the audience watched two trailer videos, projected on the auditorium’s massive white wall and displaying samples of the channel’s programming. Between screenings, African Reggae singer Black Nature performed a three-song set.
Black Nature, the stage name of Alhaji Jeffrey Kamara, who lives in the East Bay, is an original member of the Sierra Leone Refugee All-Stars, a music group comprised of refugees fleeing Sierra Leone’s civil war of the 1990s and early 2000s. Kamara, 23, was orphaned during the war.
Harris’ lineage was announced first. But before it was, Neal, with a microphone in one hand and a file’s worth of papers in the other, asked Harris why he wanted to have the testing done. Harris, who had been asked by Comcast if he wanted his DNA tested, had a pragmatic reason. “I don’t know where I’m from,” he said, “and I don’t know where I’m going.”
Now Harris knows where he’s from. Nigeria.
Brooks and Jackson, with little connection to each other than being African-American women who live in the East Bay, were about to find out together that they have a common ancestry, both descending from a country neighboring Harris’ ancestral home.
“There was so much going through my head,” Jackson said of the moment before the announcement. “I was on pins and needles, because the guessing was going to be over.”
Neal, reading from a sheet on the podium, announced that Jackson’s maternal lineage had been pinpointed to two tribes, the Masa and Hausa, in Cameroon.
When the microphone was handed to Jackson, she struggled to hold back tears as she addressed the audience, telling them how thankful and relieved she was to finally know her heritage. Then she headed back to her seat. “That’s when the flood of tears came,” she said later, after she had regained her composure. “Now I have a home,” Jackson said. “I know where I’m from. That’s a pretty amazing thing.”
Now that she knows where her maternal ancestors are from, Jackson said she wants to do a test for her father’s side. And she plans to go to Cameroon within the next few months. “Why wait?” she said. “First I’ll go, then I’ll take my children.” But before she goes, she has someone important to contact. “I can’t wait to tell my World Bank friend that I’m from Cameroon,” Jackson said. “I can visit now.”