(CNN) -- Imagine it. Someone binds your hands with a rope, hangs you from a wooden beam and beats your bare back with a whip until you deny the name your parents gave you.
Can you picture that? Would you accept the new name? Would the sting of the whip make you forsake your heritage and utter "David," even if your name was Greg?
The scene is from a television miniseries titled "Roots," which chronicled an African-American family's history from slavery until the 1880s. While the segment lasted moments, it summarized 246 years of American history in which slave owners erased a culture by denying Africans the right to use their names, speak their language, practice their faith and pass family history on to their offspring.
Now a Howard University geneticist has developed a method to match the DNA of African-Americans to ethnic groups in Africa. That test, which could be available early next year, gives African-Americans an opportunity to reclaim a stolen legacy and learn from which region of Africa their ancestors came.
"We have been mentally enslaved and physically enslaved in terms of our history," said Irena Webster, executive director for the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History in Silver Spring, Maryland. "The Europeans have all of that history of themselves, and we don't. Any effort to bring us closer to our history is critically important."
Identities erased in slave era
During the Colonial era, slaves outnumbered white people in some regions of the country, said David Organ, a geographer and director of the African World Studies Institute at Dillard University in New Orleans.
"There was a serious question about (slave) rebellion. There were worries about would some parts of America become African," Organ said. Consequently, slave owners had to devise ways to prohibit slaves from communicating and organizing.
"The removal of identity was a central function of the enslavement process," Organ said. "The whole issue of language and naming is so central to identity that slaves were not allowed to speak their native language or maintain traditional names."
Once in America, slave owners also would not permit drumming because they knew slaves could communicate through the rhythms, he said. "It was another form of language."
Database of almost 60 groups
The genetic testing that Howard University professor Rick Kittles has developed will establish the connections that most African-American families lost 15 generations ago.
Kittles, the project's lead researcher, describes the tests as the results of a 25-year "yearning."
"Since I was little, I wanted to know where my ancestors came from," he said. That yearning started after he saw "Roots" on television.
African countries have cooperated with the research team to provide blood and cheek swab samples for use in genetic testing. The database has samples from almost 60 ethnic groups from West and Central Africa, the regions from which slaves were taken.
Two tests, for which a fee will be established later, will be available. One traces a person's ancestry on his or her mother's side and the other determines the father's lineage. Both rely on DNA.
DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, is the basis of hereditary molecules. It determines traits that pass from one generation to the next.
Mitochondrial DNA passes from a mother to her child without ever changing. (A mitochondrion is the part of a cell that gives it energy.) This test would give people information about their mothers' and subsequently their great-great-great-great grandmothers' ancestry.
To determine where a person's father came from, Kittles' group would match data from Y-chromosomes. That chromosome passes from a father to a son without changing.
Kittles has conducted both tests on himself.
"My mother's (DNA) went to northern Nigeria," he revealed. "I tested myself for paternal lineage, and it went to Europe."
European paternal lineage common
In 1808, the international slave trade became illegal, Organ said, and slave owners participated in the breeding of African women.
Kittles' paternal lineage is a common one. "About 30 percent of African-American men would find that their fathers are of European decent because of the rape of African-American women by white men," the geneticist said.
Kittles' group has access to Native Americans' DNA samples for those people whose roots cannot be traced to Africa. Many Native Americans helped runaway slaves.
For those whose lineage does lead to Africa, the tests will match a person to an ethnic group in Africa and state in which region that group lives. There will also be information about what languages people in that area speak, Kittles said.
Ethnic information will be more meaningful to African-Americans because present-day African countries did not exist during the slave trade, Organ said. Colonial Europeans created those boundaries in the late 1800s.
"It's key for African-Americans who are trying to make linkages to pay attention to ethnic groups who might reside in more than one state," Organ said. "The ambiguity of modern-day boundaries don't coincide with pre-colonial nations, empires and kingdoms."
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