- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 14, 2005

PITTSBURGH — My dad, rest his soul, subscribed to National Geographic, and because he did, I used to travel around the globe and not just spend holidays in my native Pittsburgh. Don’t get me wrong. Pittsburgh — circa 2005 and minus the funky steel mills — remains one of my ancestral homes and I have many a relative buried in its many cemeteries.

Knowing our family histories is more important than we like to think. It is knowledge that passes on information that goes far beyond geographic borders and important dates. American Indians, for example, often reap economic benefits by tracing their bloodlines to a federally recognized tribe. Land disputes are often settled not through wills but through other documents proving who begot who. Of course, if you can trace your roots to the Habsburg dynasty, you don’t have to bother about such details.

But who among us can do that?

As family historian (of sorts), my major sources of ancestral information have been my mother and Charlotte Simmons Bishop, the matriarch on my dad’s side of the family. Like the character in the book “I am Charlotte Simmons,” my aunt doesn’t put on airs and she speaks her mind — at 92. And when Aunt Charlotte starts talking family history, I whip out pen and paper as if I were appointed rapponteur, mindful of neither time nor place. I even stood up Bill Cosby last week. (Sorry, Mr. C.)

Like DNA, Aunt Charlotte, who, like my dad, was born in Alabama but moved to Pittsburgh when they were grade-school age, informs me of our family’s health histories, too — diabetes and alcoholism; goiters and dropsy; arthritis and gout — so that we can pass on that information as warning signs. (We now know, for instance, that diabetes has struck each generation since at least the mid-1800s.)

And yes, like a lot of other blacks in the Mid-Atlantic Region, my American roots are in Carolina. While my dad’s father farmed indigo in South Carolina, Great-granddaddy Ben Dobbin was a “tar heel” born in Harnett County, N.C. A wagoner of tar and pitch.

My aunt’s history lessons are certainly valuable when I prowl the Internet in search of census data and heraldic information. One recent such search landed me at nationalgeographic.com, where the Genographic Project asked, “Did you ever wonder about your most ancient ancestors?”

“Ancient,” I thought. I’m stuck in the 1700s with the Dobbins and McDougals (that’s right, the Scots), which is, I say, a lengthier history than many of you have pulled together.

But to trace family DNA is a most pregnant idea, don’t you think?

Oh, I’m a little concerned about in whose hands this vital information might someday land, but what the heck. I mean, all our lines trace back to Africa anyway.

I digress, though. The DNA project is set up by the National Geographic Society and an IBM research arm, Watson Research Labs. The goal, the Web site says, is to “explain the genetic journeys that bond your personal lineage over tens of thousands of years.”

Here’s how it works. You purchase a $99.95 kit from the Web site, use the swabs in the kit to get DNA samples from the inside of your cheeks, and then return the samples. You can track “your test kit, step by step” and view presentations that “explain how scientists actually decode the information found in the molecules of your DNA.”

Now, trying to decipher bureaucratic gobbledygook is something I have to do for a living. Deciphering scientific-speak is frightening. But if the researchers and writers working on this National Geographic project write and illustrate as generations of its magazine writers and illustrators always have, then I’m prepared for a wonderful journey.

The final step in the journey is titled “Explore,” when you are introduced, if you will, to “your earliest human relatives” and “trace your relatives’ journeys across the planet.”

The Genographic Project’s ambitious undertakings might set us up for a big disappointment, since we all know where the Garden of Eden was situated. (Alex Haley had his own “Aunt Charlotte.”)

I nonetheless hold out hope, as my black ancestors did when they packed up and worked their way north, not by what is now I-95, but through the Deep South, and turned North toward the steel mills and better-paying jobs.

Pittsburgh’s steel mills, with their soot and billowing smokestacks are long gone, replaced with gleaming, clean-lined office buildings. Most of my male relatives who worked in those mills are gone, too. Through Aunt Charlotte, I’m able to relive and catalogue their trials and triumphs.

I will eventually discover new stories and roots — the Scots and all — through my participation in the National Geographic-IBM Genographic Project, but those tales won’t be as heart-tugging as the ones told by Charlotte Simmons.

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