Thursday, October 26, 2006

Tror Na Foe (troh-nah-fway): a phrase in Ewe, the language spoken by the people from which my family on my father's side descends, in southeastern Ghana. It means, roughly, "to go back and retrieve something that one has lost."

This image is an ancient version of the Sankofa Bird, a mythical being from the cultures of the Akan-speaking peoples of central Ghana, who moves forward while looking behind, mindful that confidently and creatively moving ahead into the future requires a keen knowledge of and respect for one's past.

From the Akan words San ko - (to go back) fa - (to get).

A note to readers: If you're new to this site, you might want to scroll all the way to the bottom and read these posts from there to the top, just to follow the story in the right sequence!

After A Two Hundred Forty Year Absence, A Family Begins to Re-Connect!
At the point in this story where I left off last week, Lawrence Agbemabiese and I had begun to correspond. We were excited to know that our DNA results showed us to be only a one-step variation away from an exact match with one another. But that result raises many more questions than it can begin to answer. It signifies that we probably share a common male ancestor somewhere within the last seven to twelve generations. It could mean that we share, for instance, the same eight or nine-times-great grandfather, and that the one-step variation in our DNA is the result of a small mutation that has crept in over time. It could mean that his eight or nine-times-great grandfather was brother to my corresponding direct ancestor... or cousin on the paternal side.

In most cases, there would be no likely way to ever answer these questions. We'd find ourselves stuck at yet more geneaological dead end... except for one potentially very important detail of family history revealed in Lawrence's first letter to me.

"Our Dad, John, was the son of George Agbemabiese, an Anlo Chief whose title was Haxormene II of Tegbi. This is a small coastal town on the southeastern coast of Ghana."

With that all-important nugget of information, our chances of finding the answers to these questions - and much, much more - suddenly increased a thousand percent. Why? Because the family's status as hereditary chiefs goes way back. Sadly, when a farmer or a fisherman out doing their work, or a soldier caught up on the losing side of a war went missing, their families mourned them, but no record remains about the details of how they became victims of the trade in slaves. But when a member of a royal family went missing, that was news. The west African tradition of court poet, clan historian and praise singer - widely known as the "griot" in the former French colonies - means that the details of how this particular African ancestor of mine became a victim just might known. The story of why and under what circumstances he was seized and sold away just might be part of the carefully preserved oral record of our people back home. Somebody may know his story. Somebody may know his name.

So, as I prepare to leave for Ghana next week, you'd best believe I am well-armed with a digital voice recorder and camera, ready to record as many hours of interviews with clan elders as it takes to see if enough precious nuggets of oral history survive to help us answer our questions.

Lawrence and I Get The Chance to Meet
As good fortune would have it, my wife and I already had plans to visit friends in Paris this past summer, and Lawrence, as I mentioned last week, is a Program Officer at the United Nations Environmental Programs offices there. Naturally, we seized the opportunity to meet. In the first installment of this blog, I published the photo my wife, Celeste, took when we stepped off the train into Paris and Lawrence stepped up to meet us for the first time. It was an electric and emotional moment I will never forget.

And it only got better. As soon as Lawrence dropped us at our hotel, he put plans into motion for us to spend some quality time with him and his family while we were there.

He and his wonderful wife Caroline told us later that she tried to cool down his excitement and enthusiasm a little. "Don't get your hopes up so high," she cautioned. "We can't be so sure about all this just yet." "Look; it's science," Lawrence had countered. "There's no doubt. The connection may be distant, but we're related." Still, Caroline had decided she'd wait until she could personally lay eyes on me; talk with me; be with me a while, before she'd be convinced. "I know your family well," she'd said. "I will know if he's really one of you or not."

So, the die was cast. If I felt like family when she met me, she'd willingly accept me as such. But if I didn't, she wasn't buying into this one bit.

When Lawrence and his sons, Marc and Carl, picked us up at the train station near their suburban Paris home, the boys and I couldn't stop stealing furtive glances at each other and smiling. Lawrence urged them to think of me as an uncle and to go ahead and refer to me as such. But I think they were waiting for their mother's unambiguous stamp of approval as much as I was to make this status official.

We needn't have worried. It only took a couple of minutes for Caroline to become convinced. Standing next to each other in person, no one would have trouble believing Lawrence and I are cousins. And Caroline was immediately and emotionally struck by how very much I resemble one of Lawrence's older brothers, one of the offspring of Lawrence's father by his first wife. But the "resemblance" goes much deeper than that. It's the way we walk; the way we talk; the sound of our voices; what we talk about; the way we talk about what we talk about. These are the things that convinced her. "Be prepared when that side of the family first sees you back home," she said. "It's going to be emotional. I'm telling you, they will cry."

She and Lawrence threw us a great party in their back yard with a few of Lawrence's colleagues from the U.N. and a couple of close family friends. We ate well and had big fun, and Caroline kept turning the music up until somebody said, "Hey, somebody's gonna call the police!" but Caroline just didn't care. A woman after my own heart. Besides, it wasn't that late. And it WAS Saturday night. And having felt the wonderful, lively vibe of the neighborhood, I've got to believe the neighbors were enjoying it as much as we did. I can't prove that, but nobody ever did call the police, and a good time was had by all.

I told Lawrence and family when we left that my goal was to make it to Ghana in November. And the ancestors MUST be urging us on and blessing this whole enterprise, because sure enough, on November 1st, I'm bound for Accra! Look for new posts from Ghana over the next several weeks as I push on with my quest to interview elders and see if we can parse out the story of our first ancestor to arrive in the "new world" from this line of the family. Cousin Gideon Agbemabiese is meeting me at the airport and helping me dive into this quest with both feet. Look for new photos and video too, as I visit Anloga for the annual Hogbetsotso Festival (more about that later), and walk about the family's ancestral town of Tegbi for the first time. Stay tuned!

And please don't forget, if you're so inclined, to help me collect and send school supplies to cousin Lawrencia's school near Kumasi.

The address:
Mrs. Lawrencia Agbenyefia
Deeper Christian Life Ministry
P.O. Box 539
Obuasi, Ashanti Region

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Tror Na Foe
(troh- na- fway) Is a phrase in the Ewe language (the people from whom our family sprang in the southeastern corner of Ghana) which means, roughly, "to come back and retrieve something that one has lost."

May The Circle Be Unbroken
Since I began sharing the story of how we have managed to find and connect with one of the African families from whom our ancestors were separated during slavery, many people have peppered me with questions about we did it.

That's me (left), with cousin Lawrence Agbemabiese and family in Paris,
summer, 2006. Left to right, son Marc, Lawrence, wife Caroline, son Carl.
(photo, Celeste Grant)

In last week's inaugural installment of this blog, I promised to use the next two installments to write about how it all came together, and what it felt like for members of our families to meet, face to face, for the first time.

Finding One Another
Celeste and I have two adult children, Malaika and Amahl, and they teamed up to give us DNA kits from the National Genographic Project for Christmas last year. "Yep, it's the gift that keeps on giving," our daughter said with a smile. She knew that the information the test results would yield will ultimately mean just as much to her and her brother and their children as they do to Celeste and I.

What they are about at National Genographic is collecting as diverse a sampling of human DNA as they can, in an effort to map out in detail the history of humankind's dispersion from its African cradle, so that we may begin to understand more than we ever have before about, in their own words, "who we are, where we came from, and how we relate as members of one extended family."

You can connect with this worthy effort at

The kit includes some excellent printed information on genetics and the story of how humankind spread out to cover the planet in ancient times, as well as a great National Geographic documentary on DVD about the genesis of project leader Dr. Spencer Wells' and his colleagues' groundbreaking work in this area.

Participating is a simple process. You use the soft, serrated swab and the sterile lab vials provided by the kit to collect cells from the inside of your cheeks; you pop both vials into the mailer pouch, and send it off to them. Their labs use those cells to isolate a good sample of your DNA (the X-Chromosome, if you're a woman; the Y-Chromosome if you're a male). The tests take weeks, but eventually, they'll get back to you via mail, or e-mail (your choice). If you've had your X-Chromosome tested, the information they share with you about your genetic heritage will pertain only to your female line - and this is very important to understand - which means strictly mother to daughter to mother to daughter, on back into deep antiquity. In other words, none of the genetic heritage of any female ancestor's father ever comes into play. Same thing with your Y-Chromosome. It's strictly your paternal line - father to son, to father to son - all the way back. The results that return tell you to which "haplogroup", or specific branch of the human family tree, you belong.

For me, there were some surprises right away. Like many African Americans, some of my ancestry is European. That's one of the legacies of what they used to call, "the peculiar institution." Slave-owning men had endless, easy access to the women they owned as slaves, and this resulted in the births of huge numbers of so-called "mulatto" children. We own a photograph of the four Sams in our family: brother, father, grandfather; great-grandfather. Now, great-grandfather Sam is a very light-skinned man. So I had always assumed, given the history of slavery, that even though there was no oral history to back this up, he must have been the son, or at least the grandson of our family's slave master, or perhaps, overseer. I thought it pretty likely that when I got my DNA results back, the story they told would really be about his European ancestors, whoever they were, all the way back.

Surprise! The sample came back listing me as a member of the large African haplogroup E3(a). This is the haplogroup to which most west Africans belong. Great-grandfather Sam's father was a veteran of the civil war, and when I found the records of his unit, I found him clearly listed - twice - as black. Census and other records back then made a clear distinction between "black" and "mulatto," even though the decision about which of these catagories you'd fit into was based on the highly subjective judgement of whatever white person was doing the counting! But what this means is that my great-great grandmother, the woman he married and with whom he had his children, must have been very, very light skinned, indeed. The story of her father and mother remain a mystery for now. But the DNA results now clearly showed that my great-great grandfather and his father before him, going back to that first African ancestor brought here in chains, are connected to each other in a line leading straight back to Africa.

Now, for most of us African Americans, this is where we hit a huge dead end. Your sample shows you're E3(a)... but now, what?

The lab which sub-contracted with National Genographic to perform the isolation and identification of my DNA sample was Family Tree DNA, in Houston, Texas. They'll get in touch with you after your results are in, and ask if you would like to - 1) have them perform additional testing, based on the tissue sample they already have from you (ie; if you're male, upgrading the standard twelve marker Y-Chromosome test to include more genetic markers, or adding an X-Chromosome test to examine your mother's line; 2) join, at no charge, the large and growing international databases managed by organizations called Y-Search and Mito-Search ("mito" is a reference to mitochondrial DNA, which is another way of describing the heritage carried by the female X-Chromosome).

It's a great offer. You sign up; you upload the results of your sample, and instantly, you have a tool for comparing your DNA to samples from tens of thousands of participants worldwide. You will almost certainly find at least several people who match you exactly, or who are one or two "markers" distant. In the case of the Y-Chromosome, an exact match on the standard twelve marker test means that, in all probability, you and the match you've found share a common male ancestor somewhere within the last three to seven generations. In the case of a person who's got a one-marker variation from your sample (ie; say, at the eleventh alelle of your DNA strand, he's a 27, and you're a 28), that common male ancestor probably lived in the last seven to twelve generations.

The problem for African American geneaology researchers is that the overwhelming majority of these database participants, so far, have their roots primarily in Europe, the near east, and the Indian sub-continent. If your heritage is strongly linked to these parts of the world, you're in luck. But if it's connections with a sub-Saharan African heritage you're searching for, the going gets tough. Very tough.

The original homes of the vast majority of the slaves brought to these shores were in west and central Africa, and so far, the number of African participants in the big DNA databases from these areas is very, very small. That's no surprise. These are parts of the world saddled with great poverty, and participation in such studies requires 1) money;2) some free time; 3) ready access to a computer, and an e-mail address. Thousands of Africans have been sampled for DNA, but as members of groups for the purpose of academic study, not as individuals. Dr. Kittles of Howard University and his company, African, have been sampling in west Africa for years, searching for and identifying patterns of DNA markers that can help African American geneaology researchers find a specific ethnicity ("tribe") to whom they are related, or at least narrow down their ancestral origins to a tightly-defined geographic area. The ability to get that close to nailing down the specifics of our African heritage has been a deeply cherished dream for so many of us!

But it's at this point that my story diverges from most others. In my case, there was, indeed, an African whose sample is a very close match to mine - that one west African in a million who had participated in the National Genographic Project (at the urging, it turned out, of a fellow scientist at the U.N. offices in Paris) and had then taken the next step of signing on with Y-Search.

Y-Search issues code numbers so that if someone in the database desires to contact a user who proves to be a match, or near match, a user's real identity remains hidden unless he or she chooses to reveal it - a protection for the privacy of everybody involved. Particpants are asked to list a "country of origin" for the most distant ancestor they know of. Many African Americans choose to list a country of origin in Africa based on some nugget of family oral history that's been passed down in their families. Sometimes that information will turn out to have a basis in fact; but more often, not. So, it was with great initial caution that I reached out to someone on my one-marker variation list who identified his country of origin as Ghana.

"... At first glance," my e-note read, "It certainly appears that we may, in the not very distant past, share a common male ancestor... Were you born in Ghana, or are you, like me, a U.S.- born descendant of African slaves?"

"What a nice surprise! Yep, I am from Ghana," his note began, and suddenly, we found ourselves launched on a voyage of discovery that has already yielded new knowledge and surprises far beyond any expectations I ever had about what might come of taking that initial cheek swab!

Coming Up Next Week

The story of how that respondent, Lawrence Agbemabiese, and I developed a profound connection through internet correspondence, and before long, had our first meeting, face to face. I'll also talk about beginning to parse out the story of who that first common ancestor may have been, and how we have begun the process of connecting our families on both sides of the Atlantic.

And speaking of that growing connection, here's a post-script

Cousin Lawrencia Agbenyefia (his sister) runs a primary school near Kumasi. I have offered to take some supplies to her, but you know how restrictive the airline luggage allowances are these days. So, I'd like to enlist your aid on her (and the childrens') behalf. She says they need math and science texts and workbooks, appropriate for the early elementary grades; educational games, toys and puzzles; age appropriate books for the library; computer CDs and DVDs; etc. Lightly used items will be fine, but brand new is ideal. If you can help, you may send items in care of her church at:

Mrs. Lawrencia Agbenyefia

Deeper Christian Ministry

P.O. Box 539

Obuasi, Ashanti Region,


Many thanks! See you next week!!

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Tror Na Foe
(troh- na- fway) Is a phrase in the Ewe language (the people from whom our family sprang in the southeastern corner of Ghana) which means, roughly, "to come back and retrieve something that one has lost."

The Universe Is Made of Stories

"The universe is made
of stories, not of atoms"
Muriel Rukeyser

First meeting between cousin Lawrence Agbemabiese
and I (left) at Gare du Nord, Paris, summer, 2006
(photo, Celeste Grant)

I have always been a lover and collector of stories, ever since I was a kid. No one who knew me back then was the least bit surprised when I became a serious young actor - that's one kind of professional storyteller; nor when as an adult, I became a writer, another time-honored way to turn storytelling into one's living.

As a screenwriter and playwright, I've always loved the challenge of bringing other peoples' stories to life. With the creation of the brand new blog you are now reading, I relish the opportunity, for once, to share one of my own. This is the story of how my family, separated by slavery between Africa, the Americas and the Caribbean; lost to one another for over two hundred fifty years, is in the midst now of reaching out across the historical and cultural divide to reclaim itself from the Great Trans-Atlantic Lost & Found. Through a stroke of Grace and great good luck, we have found not just the specific people from which one branch of our family arose in Africa; we have found a specific family with whom we have blood ties. They're in Ghana. And I'm getting ready, as I write this, to make my first trip - the first of many, many, I'm sure. It's been an incredible journey so far, but the truth is, it's really only just beginning. And I'm inviting you to come along this journey and walk it with me.

A Longing In Our Hearts
The old folks in our family always knew that I was deeply interested in their stories - their personal reminiscences of the teens, twenties, thirties, and forties, for sure - but especially the stories that had been passed down to them from the days of slavery. The stories were full of intriguing and often edifying glimpses of these ancestors. Tales about their grit and determination in the face of the terrible reality through which they lived were always inspirational food for the mind and spirit. And every time I was able to piece together some of the details of lives yet one more generation back; then another... it felt like a huge victory. My window on the past kept getting bigger; the vision through that window a little bit clearer. But like the vast majority of other African Americans, that window on the past never let me see any farther than the shores of this country. Only rarely did the stories passed down to me give more than a tantalizing hint about our family's origins in Africa.

In fact, throughout African American history, it's only been that extremely rare, once in a million story that takes family researchers where we really long to go - back to a solid connection with a specific place in Africa. The Africans from whom we are descended were not born "darkies", "niggers", "jigaboos" nor "spooks." Neither were they "Negroes" nor "coloreds," nor ignorant savages by anybody's definition of the word. They did not come "from nothing" as the ideology that propped up slavery insisted. They were, in fact, people from diverse cultures with rich, complex histories. Many of these cultures were urban and highly sophisticated. They were Ibo, Yoruba, Hausa and Fulani; they were Mande, Wolof, Fula, and Ewe and Balanta. They were farmers, and traders and fishermen; soldiers, tax collectors and royal courtiers; troubadors, priests and magicians.

On these shores, each was reduced to something less than human - a chattel slave. But in each of our families, that first African ancestor to arrive here was somebody, from someplace. He or she had a name. Many of us have nourished in our hearts a profound longing to speak those names if we could but know them - to let their recitation help us properly remember and honor our dead; to let their recitation help us, our children, and their children remember who we are... keep faith with the past as we march forward into whatever future we will make for ourselves.

Suddenly, Everything Changes
But now, DNA-based geneaological research is making it possible to fill huge gaps in our collective knowledge that were previously an almost impossible dream. I'll talk about how our family is using this new knowledge to make the connections we are now exploring, and provide you with links to people who are doing interesting and vital work in this area. I'll spend the next three weeks catching you up with what's happened on this journey so far, and how we've arrived at where we are. And then, starting in the first week of November, as I begin in earnest to write a book about all of this, I invite you to keep up with me through this blog while I make my first trip to Ghana. Look for photos and video as I attend the annual Hogbetsotso Festival near our family's ancestral village, and then visit with clan elders (griots) to see if we can piece together enough information to identify that first ancestor on my father's side to come to this country as a captive. I'll introduce you to my long-missing family as I meet them - cousin Gideon, at the ancestral village in Tegbi; cousin Lawrencia at the school she runs in Kumasi... and cousin Lawrence, whose picture appears on this page, once he arrives in Accra a few days later on business for the U.N.

Stay tuned. I'm pleased to know you, and glad to have you with me on this journey.