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Slavery complicates family history

Wednesday, February 16, 2000

During Black History Month in February, a frequently asked question is: Who are the black people, and what was their history before their enslavement in the Americas?

This question is not a surprise because Western Pennsylvanians take pride in their ethnic heritage and engage in celebrations each year for that purpose.

But it is far more difficult to trace African heritage.

The black American has roots to the continent of Africa, just as most white Americans have roots in the continent of Europe. And Europeans, more specifically, define their heritage to the particular nation of Europe -- such as Poland or Italy -- from which their families came.

Most African-Americans, however, have difficulty identifying the nations of Africa that would clarify their specific national origin because enslavement prevented this. Slavery was a brutal institution that took away the language, customs, religion and especially the dignity of being human.

To learn about the origins of black people, one must first think of Africa as a continent. It was, and is, made up of many different nations that were equal, or more diverse in variety, than those in Europe. The "African" that is now part of "African-American" could belong to any of these African nations, especially those on the West Coast of the continent.

Studies of anthropology and genetics have found human history in Africa to be the oldest on Earth. People who are dedicated to the study gain comfort in learning these new truths.

-- By John Ford, Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center school programs manager

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