Nigerian Ancestry in America | What my DNA reveals about the U.S.

two Nigerian women in traditional dress, representing the topic of Nigerian ancestry in America
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The craze of ancestry testing has swept the globe. Organizations like Ancestry.com and 23andMe have been on the receiving end of millions of spit samples for a time now. I sent mine in, you can believe. One of the most interesting parts of doing a test like this is learning your backstory. Not just of a family, but of an entire world. There was a whole global exchange that happened, something never seen before.

Now, I know these tests aren’t perfectly accurate and they might misrepresent ethnicities and countries. But my question is: What does our ancestry reveal about American history and identity? I mean Nigerian ancestry, in this case.

Before we get started, I just want to lay out a disclaimer; I am not a geneticist or DNA expert. Besides the science or validity of testing, I want to look more at context. How did Nigerian ancestry even get to America? And why is there so much Nigerian ancestry in so many black people? The focus today will not be about DNA itself, but about the story that ancestry tells about American history and identity. That’s because the story of my ancestry is the story of many people. Let’s take a look, shalt we?!

Sorry, that was oldschool.


How did Nigerian ancestry get to America?

Well, that one’s quite obvious isn’t it? Unless you’re living on an alternate time plane, we trust that most African heritage in the New World was brought under terms of slavery. Now, slavery was already being practiced in West Africa before Europeans showed up. 

I only mention that because when the Portuguese arrived at what is now Nigeria, they initially set up contracts with local African leaders to trade slaves across the region. (BTW, where’d you think the name “Lagos” came from? Portuguese!) That is to say, traders already had a system set up with regional leaders. Soon after, they began to take some of those slaves for themselves to Brazil, and of course, England followed suit. 

Nigerian ancestry (in America and elsewhere) comes mostly from a few groups, either Yoruba, Igbo, Edo, or Fulani, despite being home to over 250 ethnic groups. The Hausa are a very large group too, but they weren’t sent as much to the Americas. Throughout the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, most of those sent to the 13 Colonies (baby USA) were of Yoruba and Igbo origin. The Igbo captives, in particular, were known for being rebellious, violent, and even suicidal in revolt against slavery. This bad rep probably led to less of them being brought to the country over time. The ones that did make it were mostly held around the Mid-Atlantic colonies (Virginia, Maryland), according to records.

People of West African origin, including today’s Nigeria, would make a profound impact on the musical and culinary styles of the places they were sent to. In the United States, these manifested into ragtime, jazz, soul, funk, blues, rock, R&B, hip-hop, and more. Think of them as intensely Americanized versions of African music. Remember, Nigeria was not a country at the time of American colonialism and many West African cultures extended beyond their present borders.

It’s important to note that there have been a couple of waves of Nigerian immigration to the U.S., especially Igbo, since the times of abolition. One of those immigration spikes is happening right now, actually. Nigeria today is the most populous nation in Africa, and its ancestry is highly present in many black Americans, whether for recent or historical reasons. But there’s just one problem: Many black people have too much Nigerian ancestry.

Nigeria’s overrepresentation in black American DNA

So, there’s a bit of a mystery when it comes to black American ancestry — well, a lot actually, but let’s look at this one thing. I’m what most people call “mixed” or “light-skinned(ed),” but the African ancestry I do have is mostly Nigerian. By now we understand how arbitrary that is. I mean, how much of that is Yoruba, or Edo, or any of those other 250? The point is, this scenario seems to be similar for many Americans with African ancestry — at least those that have been here for several generations. 

What happened was that most slaves from today’s Nigeria were sent to the Caribbean or South America. North America … not so much. Those brought to today’s U.S. were mostly from Senegambia (Senegal, Gambia, Guinea) or Central Africa (the Congo, Angola, Cameroon), so the records say. If that’s true, then where did all these Nigerians come from?

There are a couple of theories and explanations for that. One is that Nigerian ancestry shows up more on DNA tests because a higher proportion of Nigerians partake in DNA studies compared to other African nations. So, that might boost your Nigeria score. 

Another motive could stem from the abolition of Trans-Atlantic slave trading when it became illegal to capture and bring slaves from Africa anymore. That happened in 1808 in the USA. The weird part is that part of the pressure to do this, beside moral and economic, was to put a hold on the black population which actually outnumbered whites in the South. In order to get more black slaves later on, the U.S. had to import them from other New World colonies, particularly those in the Caribbean. This continued to happen even after all slavery was abolished in America.

It seems that there was a much higher death rate among the Senegambia slaves since they were among the first to arrive. It’s like the Europeans didn’t really know what they were doing yet, and so a lot of the slaves ended up dead. There were higher death rates in the Caribbean and South American slaves, but once brought to the U.S. they usually did a little better. 

Many were probably second-generation and were already used to the hard life on plantations. It’s thought that they intermarried with the established black population or even outnumbered them in places, enough so that their gene pool would become dominant. In reality, it could be due to a mixture of reasons. 

In Conclusion

As a black-ish American, it is fascinating to me to learn more about my African heritage. There’s a lot to be proud of and a lot to feel bad about. The idea that Nigerian ancestry is likely so dominant due to Caribbean slaves being brought into the States really demonstrates how linked together black people of the New World are. We don’t have our old languages, customs, or religions, but we do have our own new dialect, our own new customs, and a rich culture that has taken the world by storm! 

As I said, I am mixed, so I’ll be going over the different white, black, and whatever else ancestry I have over the coming weeks / months. It is all a part of a quest to understand the history of this country. What shows up on our DNA tests, whether exact or not, reveals not only how America was made. It reveals how the world made America.

Thanks for reading! As always, take care out there. 😉  

Further Reading and Resources

Abolishing African Slave Trade

African American Music

Nigeria Country Profile

So Much Nigerian Ancestry

Lots of Americans with Nigerian Ancestry

Overrepresentation of Nigerian Genes

Ancestry Profile of Nigeria

Nigerian Americans

Are there many interracial couples in America?

Looking at the complex racial history of the United States, one might be set to think that the nation’s many “races” and ethnic groups don’t mix well. If you’ve seen shows like 90 Day Fiancé (or Keeping Up With the Kardashians, really) then you have some notion about this. Here, I want to look at how people mix on more than just a superficial level. What’s the chemistry like for different races in America? How much mixing do these different groups actually do? In many countries (definitely not all) interracial couples are pretty common, or at least aren’t seen as particularly strange. In the U.S., well, it’s a funny story.

Some Inter-Racial History

an old color painting of black slaves awaiting sale in a room with white spectators & auctionees
Slaves waiting for sale – By Eyre Crowe

So yes, interracial couples do exist in the U.S.A. A lot, actually. But, racial mixing in relationships is still taboo in many parts. Why is that? I mean, it’s 2021! There are some good reasons behind this. Historically, mixed-race couples have been highly criticized within the U.S., especially between black and white people. In many ways, this combination is still the most controversial in the States, even though for black men the most common interracial combo is he, black and she, white. Still, what’s all that prejudice about?

an old photo of light-skinned slave girls, mulatto children in the American South during slavery
Mixed-race slave girls – By M.H. Kimball

You might know (or be able to guess) that this stems from times of slavery. Many black women were raped by their white master or his family members, forcing them to have mulatto children. Instead of being given more rights like in some other European colonies, the mulattos were still considered slaves. More often than not, they were treated with the same cruelty too. This is part of why mixed people or “light-skinned-ed” black people are often considered black in the first place. But that’s a different post.

Anyway, due to this complicated history of racial division and mistrust, the family of either partner in a couple may feel discomfort with the relationship. It’s not just between blacks and whites, given the historic tensions:

  • Latinos/Hispanics – mostly for immigration and cultural differences
  • Asians (especially Japanese, Koreans, and Vietnamese) – because of several American wars in the region, Japanese attacks during WW2, cultural prejudice
  • Arabs/Muslims – recent wars, 9/11, cultural and religious differences

Native Americans make up a pretty small portion of interracial couples, but they are also one of the smallest ethnic groups overall. I do get the sense that they are more mixed and integrated into American society than in other American countries like Mexico or Brazil.

One contributing factor to so much prejudice around this topic is that interracial marriage used to be illegal in several states back in the day. Since it was decriminalized in the 1960s, interracial marriages have almost tripled. In all states and almost every county, interracial couples have increased and are continually on the rise. There are some differences though.

And now commencing: Montage of beautiful mixed families

Trends & Perceptions about Intermixing

an interracial family smiling and posing for a photo in front of a house
One big mixed family – by Rajiv Perera

Interracial relationships tend to be more common in urban areas than rural areas. They’re also more common in the West or the Mid-Atlantic. That’s because those regions are more diverse anyway, so it’s a lot more likely you’ll meet someone of a different “race” in the first place, let alone marry them. As far as opinion, black people are more likely to accept intermarriage than white people are. Still, it depends on the combo.

For instance, black family’s would probably be more accepting of intermarriage with a white person than an Asian person. Meanwhile with white families, it might be the opposite. Still, intermarriage between groups like whites with Asians or Hispanics is more common than intermarriage with blacks in general. Most commonly with intermarriage, white people are more likely to get with someone who is white Hispanic. At that point, it’s less a matter of “race” and more of cultural identity.

Attitudes about race, regions where more diverse communities are located, quality of education, and employment opportunities are some factors that help determine the prevalence of interracial couples in any given part of America. All these factors considered, general tendencies with black people contribute to fewer marriage rates overall anyway. That’s stuff like higher incarceration and unemployment rates. Been to jail? Don’t have a job? It’s gonna be hard for her to accept that ring, player.

What’s “Interracial,” Anyway?

two mixed-race American kids with curly hair sitting and laughing together
Some of that pretty mixed-people hair – by Eye for Ebony

A couple of notes about race as it relates to this subject:

So, we all know about the strange American system of declaring who’s who and what’s what. Hispanics are considered an “ethnic group” of people from any Spanish-speaking country (from Mexico to Spain). Latinos are from any Latin-American country (from Mexico to Argentina, Brazil included — places like Haiti usually aren’t included). Asians covers anybody from East, South, or Central Asia (from China to India to Kazakhstan). Arabs considers everyone from an Arabic-speaking nation (from Morocco to Iraq).

Otherwise, there’s a separation between African-American and black since black could be from Africa, the Caribbean, or anywhere else, really. Whites are generally considered those with Anglo-Saxon (e.g. British, German), Slavic (e.g. Russian, Polish), or Mediterranean (e.g. Italian, Greek) backgrounds. This often excludes Indo-Aryans (e.g. Iranians, white Afghans) or whites from the Middle East/North Africa (e.g. white Algerians, white Lebanese).

All of this to say that the way interracial couples are recorded in the U.S. can be tricky. Let’s say Joe with British ancestry marries Susan with Syrian ancestry. Both could be white, but Susan would be considered Arab. Or Susan could have white ancestry from Cuba, but she’d be considered Hispanic/Latina.

Now Joe is black with deep African American ancestry, but now Susan has black ancestry from Cuba. Susan is still considered Hispanic/Latina, and their relationship “interracial.” Or let’s say Joe has Japanese ancestry and Susan has south Indian ancestry. Under the eyes of the census, they wouldn’t be considered interracial since both are from the Asian continent, even though they are ethnically and culturally worlds apart.

With that said, there are probably a lot more “intercultural” marriages and relationships in the U.S. than we might think based on the numbers. That’s why I like to use my eyes.

Use Your “Sense-us”

Based on what I can see, most of my family members are in “interracial & intercultural” relationships, and they live all over the country. I’m from a big city, so I have seen lots of interracial couples all over the place. If they’ve led to marriage, I’m sure is a different story altogether.

Because of recent growth in racial awareness, a lot more interracial couples and families are sympathizing more with each other’s identities. When a white person has a mixed black kid, it’s hard not to pay close attention to the police shootings of young black people. That’s just one example. In the end, I think this will be something that saves our nation and creates more sympathy for other cultures. The country is still pretty segregated compared to lots of Western countries. But I encourage interracial couples, we need them! Without them, I wouldn’t even be here.

**What do you think about interracial/intercultural couples? What about international couples? Have you ever been in a relationship like this? Would you want to? Comment and share your thoughts! Read more Doubts About Americans! And check these links below for more info. Stay safe out there! Peace.

Resources & Further Reading:

Perceptions & Trends of Interracial Couples

U.S. Census Results about Interracial Couples

Interracial Couple Experience

Other Facts about Interracial Couples