Excerpt: A Man from Another Land: How Finding My Roots Changed My Life, by Isaiah Washington

Chapter 5: Moza Cooper and the DNA Test


Did he say Senegal? Of course, I had heard that on the streets of New York and DC for years; there had been the lady on the bus who was certain I was Wolof, from Senegal, West Africa. But no, wait, what was that? What did he say? Sierra what? I blinked my eyes a few times as if that would help me hear him better. I waited a second… then I heard Dr. Kittles say, “Sierra Leone.”

It was October 2004. My career and my life had been steadily on the rise in the almost seven years since my first trip to Africa. I had appeared in several critically acclaimed films including True Crime directed by Clint Eastwood, Warren Beatty’s Bulworth, and Romeo Must Die. I was now shooting episodes of my new TV show, Grey’s Anatomy, and I felt at peace. Life was pretty damn good.

I received a call from the Pan African Film Festival’s Moza Cooper. She left a message that I had been selected to receive the 2005 Canada Lee Award and that I should call her. I was confused and a bit taken aback. Ironically, I had just finished reading Mona Z. Smith’s book, Becoming Something: The Story of Canada Lee. Lee was among the most respected African American actors of the 1940s, and a tireless civil rights activist. Yet he is mostly unknown today, reduced to a historical footnote. His death was one of a handful directly attributable to “the blacklist” of the late forties and fifties.

Lee was a Renaissance man: a violin prodigy, successful jockey, and champion boxer who became an actor and shot to stardom in Orson Welles’s Broadway production Native Son. His meteoric rise to fame was followed by a tragic fall. When he was labeled a Communist by the FBI and House Un-American Activities Committee in 1949 and condemned in the press, his career was ruined. He died penniless at forty-five years old.

When I talked to Moza, she could hear me preparing to decline the honor so she said, “We are doing the award ceremony differently this year, Isaiah. This year we are asking the recipients to take a DNA test that would reveal their ancestral lineage to the African peoples. Will you do it?” I said, “DNA test? Canada Lee? Moza… thank you for considering me, but I think I have to pass.”

She was not easily deterred. “No, no, no, Isaiah!” she was practically shouting. “You have to do this. You are perfect for this.” I hung up and thought to myself, “I’m perfect to do what? To get blacklisted?” The next day, I called Gina Paige of African Ancestry, founded in 2003 by Gina and Dr. Rick Kittles and specializing in helping people trace their African roots.

Gina explained to me how the testing process worked. I expressed my concerns about cloning and having my DNA out there somewhere to possibly fall into the wrong hands. But when she explained, “African Ancestry is a privately owned company with no attachments to any forensic or government institution,” I sighed in relief. “It takes about three hundred parts to test for ancestral links in our database and about three billion parts to clone a human being, Isaiah,” she said in her unique below-the-Mason-Dixon-Line drawl. “What makes you think that someone would want to clone you anyway?” she asked.

I paused for a moment and then laughed out loud at myself. And with that, I agreed to take the test. I hung up feeling like Christmas had come early.

Two weeks later the kit arrived. It contained two small envelopes for two long cotton swabs, a FedEx envelope, and a return label addressed to African Ancestry. The instructions were inside. It was a surprisingly simple process. I rinsed out my mouth with water as directed and then swabbed the inside of my cheek with each of the cotton swabs, careful to follow the warning to let each one dry before placing them in the envelopes and sealing them up to send back. I was anxious to get my results and learn which peoples and which land in Africa I had originated from.

On the evening of February 12, 2005, I stood tightly gripping the African staff that was the PAFF Canada Lee Award I had just received. Dr. Kittles approached me holding a reddish brown–colored folder. The room at the Magic Johnson Theater, in Baldwin Hills, California, seemed to go still. It felt like no one was breathing as Dr. Kittles started to speak. My ears were ringing loudly with anticipation and my heart pounded hard in my chest. “Sss…” is all I heard before I had the feeling a scream was about to explode from my body. I pride myself for my ability to think fast on my feet, so I quickly covered my mouth and buckled over.

Did he say Senegal? Of course, I had heard that on the streets of New York and DC for years; there had been the lady on the bus who was certain I was Wolof, from Senegal, West Africa. But no, wait, what was that? What did he say? Sierra what? I blinked my eyes a few times as if that would help me hear him better. I waited a second… then I heard Dr. Kittles say, “Sierra Leone.”

WHAM! Another surge of energy tried to leap out of me. I instinctively cupped my hand over my mouth even tighter as if to prevent the hundreds of spirits that were all trying to speak through me at once. It was all I could do not to pass out. I began to feel dizzy, and my legs felt weak; still, I refused to succumb. I felt transformed and complete at that moment. I took a deep breath, my blood pressure slowly lowered, and I heard him say, “Isaiah, your results show that you share ancestry with the Mende and Temne peoples of Sierra Leone.”

I couldn’t stop smiling. I stood there next to actress Vanessa Williams and Congresswoman Diane Watson, who had both just received the results of their DNA tests from Dr. Kittles as well. He told me I shared 99.9 percent ancestry with the Mende and Temne peoples of Sierra Leone on my maternal side. And, on my paternal side I shared 99.3 percent with the Mbundu people of Angola.

Now I understood that intense feeling of connection I felt with Angola. It all made more sense. Perhaps it was my DNA rebooting my memory of my father’s lineage of the Mbundu across the Kunene River in Angola. Or maybe this was the reason for my intense feeling of emotion when I first stepped foot on Namibia’s soil back in 1999, as well as the incredible and unexplainable experience I had while meditating at the Kunene’s banks. Had my DNA given me that connection? Did my DNA “remember” that place?

I was stunned. I stood there, in a tailored suit, with my beautiful wife, my manager, Eric Nelson, and a camera crew from ABC News watching me. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. No European? No Native American? I was nearly 100 percent African? Was this really happening?

It was. It was scientifically official. Not only did I now know where my ancestors were from, but so did a room full of other people.

I felt reborn that night. No longer did I need cowrie shells hanging from my locks, African jewelry, African dance classes, or African drumming circles. There would be no more need to hang portraits of Negresses or Moorish chiefs or wear kente cloth around my neck. All the external things that I thought I needed to connect me to Africa were now unnecessary. Africa had been inside of me all along. She was inside my DNA. She was beckoning me and guiding me my entire life through my dreams.

And for my dreams to come true, I decided I needed to go and see the country of my ancestors, Sengbe Pieh’s people—my people—for myself.

I started to ask myself, “Could DNA be the bridge that closes the gap between Africans and African Americans?” I thought about the possibility of helping to create a radical break with the international capitalist system and the idea of “taking back” Sierra Leone from its colonialist constructs. I started to imagine myself with a group of competent American businesspeople helping Sierra Leone achieve its economic development goals one village at a time. I wondered if African Americans could come together long enough to help rebuild a nation only the size of South Carolina and show the world how and why we were able to build pre-European civilizations centuries ago.

I decided that I would be the guinea pig in my own experiment and see just how much of an impact I could make over the next ten years. I closed my eyes and began to meditate. In my mind’s eye I saw images of “the Rerun.” “This is it,” I thought to myself. “This is what I was born to do. This is my purpose.”

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