The following appeared in the Los Angeles Times, April 27, 2013. Written by Jessica P. Ogilvie.
Most of us are curious about our family lineage. For Vanessa Williams, who recently took part in the show “Who Do You Think You Are” and explored her family’s history, the task was both surprising and informative. Here, she talks about what she learned and how she plans to use that information.
How did you become interested in finding out about your lineage?
I’ve always been interested, but I was introduced to Ancestry [one of the websites that help people research their family backgrounds] before I even did a show called “Who Do You Think You Are,” so I signed up as a member to document my own family tree, and my DNA analysis was done as a part of doing the show.
We ended up doing two stories on my father’s side. One of my great-great-grandfathers was a soldier in the Civil War, and the other was born a slave but ended up being an educator and principal, and one of the first black legislators in Tennessee back in 1885. The stories are rich and informative and intriguing, but also as an African American, you don’t always have the luxury to know exactly where your ancestors are from.
What did you find out about your DNA?
My DNA breaks down as follows: I’m 23% from Ghana, 17% from the British Isles, 15% from Cameroon, 12% Finnish, 11% Southern European, 7% Togo, 6% Benin, 5% Senegal and 4% Portuguese.
Now, I can’t wait to go to Ghana and Cameroon and Togo and Senegal — it’s a great opportunity to see why the customs resonate with you. I love to travel and I love to explore, and I have to admit that I was always jealous of people who knew their cultural background. Both my family and myself came out with light eyes, so obviously there is a recessive gene here. Not knowing what that was just made me very curious.
How did it feel to find out about all these different parts of your lineage?
It’s fascinating! The first person I called was my mother, and I sent her my results and copied all my kids so they know where half of their genetic makeup is from. I wish that my father was still alive, because he was a huge history buff and interested in genealogy as well. It allows a greater sense of history for the family and a bit of pride as well.
Why do you think this information is important? Is it just for your own knowledge or to do plan to use it for health purposes as well?
I remember my mother told me that when my brother was a baby, they identified some blood issue with him, and they asked her if she had any relatives from Italy because this particular blood characteristic was consistent with someone from Italy. My mother said, “No, no, nothing like that.” Well, now come to find out 45 years later and obviously we have the same genetic makeup that Southern European is 11% of our makeup.
How did your family react to all this information?
They loved it. They really can’t wait to go on our world tour of where we’re from. The biggest surprise was Finland. How did that happen? Who is Finnish? That is definitely going to be one of my trips coming up. It’s all surprising, really interesting and it’s really incredible.