Recently on Twitter (that bastion of civil, intellectual discourse) a user posted that many of us had been duped into believing that we are African descendants due to the machinations of two European intellectuals, Franz Boas and Melville J. Herskovits. This statement was a part of a larger conversation about the idea that African Americans are really indigenous to the Americas. While I am loathe to engage in such non-sensical discussions, I decided to briefly weigh in with a few simple remarks.
Of course one is entitled to their cherished familial narratives, but do note that families make all sorts of dubious genealogical claims. Richard White writes about the the differences between history and memory in his book Remembering Ahanagran. I have found a number of grotesque errors in my own family “history”, errors that defy empirical verification.
Secondly, the idea that enslaved Blacks were African is not an idea that had to wait for Franz Boas (1858) or Melville J. Herskovits (1895) to be born. Many African Americans in the 18th and 19th Century knew of their African origins and took great pride in them. Martin Delany knew of his African origins. So too did Paul Cuffee and Harriet Tubman. For this generation of African Americans, the memory of Africa was fresh and undeniable. Further, they named their institutions after Africa: African Lodge, African Methodist Episcopal Church, African Free Schools, and so forth. Our 18th and 19th Century ancestors were not confused about who they were. Nor was such knowledge derived from “theories” of Western-trained academics.
In fact, narratives like these persist into the present-day and is the subject of books like Wendy Wilson-Fall’s Memories of Madagascar and Slavery in the Black Atlantic which notes how the memory of Madagascar, or more specifically Malagasy ancestry has been retained by African American families. I actually know people for whom such a narrative exists. I also have Malagasy ancestry, but my confirmation came via DNA testing. Kwasi Konadu’s Akan Pioneers: African Histories, Diasporic Experiences explores the cultural legacy of the Akan in this hemisphere. The Igbo Diaspora in the Era of the Slave Trade by Douglas B. Chambers discusses the Igbo in the US and the Caribbean. This is just a short sample, there are other texts that discuss the Kongo and Yorùbá in the Americas.
Lastly, when one considers that the average African descendant in the US has been in here for nine or ten generations, and that this means having 510 or 1,022 genetic ancestors. I find that narratives of being native and not African generally rely on the story of a single ancestor, rather than the hundreds or more to which one owes one ancestry. Genealogical research is arduous and relies on empirical evidence. Not sole narratives, as even these are subject to critique and verification.