Some travelers have long desired a chance to mend family trees broken by slavery. For others, it’s complicated.
Tiffany Ferrette, a 26-year-old policy analyst who lives in Washington, DC, started piecing together bits of her family tree while she was in college.
“My father’s family is from Charleston, South Carolina, one of the largest slave ports in the country,” she said. “They were really curious about the history our family had in this country. That sparked my own ideas about wanting to connect that within my US context and reach back and be able to see how I felt with traveling.”
This longing to know her heritage in part influenced her decision to travel to the West African countries of Togo, Benin, and Ghana last December with travel company Magic & Melanin. Ferrette has traveled extensively since she was a teenager, but mostly to Spanish-speaking countries. She says, however, that she was always seeking out black communities wherever she traveled as a way to see herself in the wider world around her.
But experiencing West Africa for the first time was a life-altering experience. For almost two weeks, Ferrette shopped at Togolese market Grand Marché in the center of Lomé, feasted on jollof rice and a variety of other West African dishes, and visited the Door of No Return in Elmina, Ghana — a former slave outpost that serves as a moving and often emotional experience for visitors.
“It was the first time actually being rooted in the place where we all came from,” she said. “When I describe [the experience] to people, I call it a very personal and spiritual experience because I felt like for the first time, everything finally made complete sense.”
Ferrette isn’t the only one in search of that feeling. A new wave of travel is being fueled by genealogical curiosity and the boom in affordable at-home DNA testing — tourism born of travelers’ desire to connect with their genetic roots. Sometimes called ancestry trips, pilgrimages, genealogy tours, or DNA travel, companies like Classic Journeys and Family Tree Tours are hoping to get in on the business of heritage discovery. In late spring, Airbnb announced a new partnership with 23AndMe: Customers who use the at-home genetic testing service can opt in to receive Airbnb rental and travel package recommendations based on their ancestry results.
But for African Americans, this travel trend can mean something different. Ancestry travel and at-home testing, both of which are industries that haven’t or have been slow to actively connect with black customers, elucidate a painful truth: how the legacy of slavery means that those descended from enslaved Africans can’t exactly rely on DNA to tell them where they are from. It’s part of the reason several companies have taken root to specifically cater to black Americans traveling to African countries.
The challenges — and limitations — of DNA testing for African Americans
The surge in at-home DNA testing, enabled by popular companies like AncestryDNA and 23 and Me, has always been driven in part by curiosity about one’s family history. Companies like Family Tree DNA, My Heritage, tellmeGen, National Geographic Geno 2.0, and Living DNA all compete for customers in this $3 billion industry. According to an MIT Technology Review report issued earlier this year, more than 26 million people have swabbed their mouths with Q-tips and mailed the specimens to one of these companies, which charge as little as $99.
But for people of non-European descent, genetic testing can create more questions and concerns. AncestryDNA, for instance, touts having more than 15 million DNA tests in its database. But genetic biobanks have historically contained the DNA of mostly people of European descent, because those are the people who are widely getting tested. As a result, companies must pull from scarce records for people of color who sign up for testing.
The at-home genetic testing market, which is largely unregulated, also raises privacy concerns. Individual users can upload their own DNA to databases such as GEDmatch that police can then freely use, meaning that family members of people whose DNA is stored could be accessible to law enforcement (this was famously used to identify and arrest a man suspected of being the Golden State Killer last year). Critics have raised concerns about how DNA databases can further criminalize communities, especially those who are marginalized.
It’s one reason companies such as African Ancestry, which is black-owned and geared toward black customers, have formed. African Ancestry’s database contains 33,000 African lineages across 40 countries and doesn’t share or sell data from its customers once swab samples have been received.
Travelers like Eric Martin, co-founder of travel and lifestyle company Black & Abroad, that hosts trips around the world and creates multimedia travel content, chose African Ancestry for DNA testing rather than the others. “With African Ancestry, instead of [your results] telling you the country you’re from, they tell you the region you’re from, because a lot of us migrated around the continent.”
Martin recently sent his DNA in to be tested to give him a general idea of where his ancestors hailed from. “Neither one of my parents knows. There’s no idea of where they might have come from or might have originated from. All they know is that they come from the South,” he said. He’s got a feeling that Senegal will be one of his results: “When I touched down there for the first time, I was just going to go,” he said. “I felt like I belonged, and we travel a lot. The feeling I got in Senegal was just different.”
But as with any DNA test, no one can know for sure, and results can often be unpredictable.
This was the case with fellow Black & Abroad co-founder Kent Johnson. He says he was always told his family origins began in Eastern Shore, Maryland, which is as far back as their family’s records go. “[My results] were a real shocker,” he said. “It actually came back as European. But they couldn’t determine through my mother’s line the origin or the region from her side.”
Johnson said that occurrences like his are not uncommon with DNA testing for African Americans and is one of the challenges in using it as a barometer and starting point.
“Our people were a people of record-keeping, but not in the way that would be accessible through ancestry testing,” he said. “We know through reading and research that data-keeping and accounting and all of that was done through oral tradition. A lot of that got lost and just was not important to those who chose to bring people to this side of the world.”
For African Americans, genealogy and the longing to connect those missing dots has long occupied the psyche. Dianne M. Stewart, an associate professor of religion and African American studies at Emory University, said the curiosity of these heritage travelers is not unusual.
“That great unknown concerning heritage has always been important,” she said. “On top of that, people of African descent who ended up in the United States as a result of the transatlantic slave trade were directly denied knowledge and access to their specific heritages. The search for ancestral information then becomes all the more intensified.”
Some make a sort of half-hearted peace with not knowing. Others search and find very few answers, and then give up. And another subset leap beyond the world they know where they grew up and travel to West African countries, hoping to gather something from the grand whispers of the unknown. “There’s a curiosity in the human spirit in general to know,” said Stewart.
Going back to Africa
“Go back.” It’s a phrase often used as a bigoted retort to African Americans (and others). But for some black-owned travel companies and individuals, traveling to any of the 54 African countries is an intentional desire to connect more with one’s roots.
Martin and Johnson share a vested interest in this idea. Whether it was increasing the number of trips per year to include planned itineraries to West African countries or the launching of their #GoBacktoAfrica campaign, their company has tried to specialize in making black Americans feel more connected through their travel experiences. They say that many of their customers have leaned into the curiosity of tracing their genealogy or taking DNA tests to discover their roots.
Rondel Holder, travel and food blogger at Soul Society 101, did at-home DNA testing with AncestryDNA last September and within three months was en route to Togo and Benin, the two countries that held the highest percentage of his ancestry, according to his results. He called the trip his own heritage journey, a trip to learn more beyond what he knew of his roots in New York and the Caribbean countries of Jamaica and Grenada.
After packing his bag and hiring a videographer to accompany him, he set out on his journey, filling his account on Instagram with photos and videos of the trip. Holder says he strongly valued the history he learned. The Door of No Return, another slavery memorial in Benin, for instance, left him reflecting about what his ancestors might have endured. After all, he pointed out, it was history he was never exposed to in school.
“[I] really just wanted to connect with young locals who were there and learn about what their experience is,” he said. “Sort of getting like a parallel almost to what my life would be like if I was living in those countries.”
Such is also the case with entrepreneur Dossé-Via Trenou-Wells, born in Paris to parents from Lomé, Togo. She says she recognizes her privilege in being able to draw clear lines to her West African heritage and spend meaningful time in her homeland. Knowing how much this meant to her made her want to share that experience with others, especially African Americans.
Her company, Magic & Melanin, organizes experiences for groups traveling in West Africa. The first trip was last December, when a group of thirteen visited Togo, Benin and Ghana. She said that the company plans to run two trips a year, one in the summer and another in the winter.
Trenou-Wells says that heritage discovery is only part of her motivation behind starting Magic & Melanin. She also wants to open African American travelers’ eyes to the many destinations they might not otherwise consider.
“As much as we want this to be a birthright experience, we also know that black Americans love to travel,” Trenou-Wells said. “They’ll go to Europe, they’ll go to Bali, they’ll go to Mexico. We do want to appeal to them, too, in saying your money can go to other black communities as well. They way you love the beaches in Mexico, there are beautiful beaches on the West Coast of Africa.”
Ajia Allen, who calls Prince George’s County, Maryland, home, traveled on the inaugural Magic & Melanin trip last winter. She said she was more interested in venturing outside of her travel comfort zone than discovering her ancestral roots. Before the trip, she’d never been to any African country.
Once there, she was overwhelmed. “I felt myself … release. I guess that’s the best word I can say. I felt an extreme, and intense, emotional connection with everything. Even to the people we met — the locals — I felt a sense of community with.”
Allen hopes to continue to visit various countries in West Africa, to keep the dialogue open for herself emotionally and spiritually. Her desire to continue to build a relationship to the ancestors and those who came before her long-term is something echoed by fellow travelers Martin, Johnson, Holder, and Ferrette.
It’s been almost a year since Ferrette’s inaugural trip to West Africa, and she already has plans to take one annually going forward. She says the gift of the experience is more than just a sense of where her familial origins lie beyond the United States. Perhaps it was a subconscious aim all along: deeper self-worth due to feeling more connected and less isolated; a wider community, and group of ancestors, beyond what one can see; those who you can carry with you in your spirit as you sojourn on.
“I hope that each time I go, I can solidify another piece of my purpose and continue rooting that in the origin of my family, my people and, really, a civilization,” she said. “And keep walking in that purpose and those steps.”
Nneka M. Okona is a Nigerian American freelance writer based in Atlanta. Her work focuses on food and travel and how race, culture, and history intersect with those two themes. Her work has appeared in National Geographic, the Washington Post, and Condé Nast Traveler.
Author: Nneka M. Okona