Attracted Celebrity Customers
Any genealogy researcher, however, knows that filling in one piece of an ancestry puzzle can shed light on many other parts of the puzzle. Any criticism Kittles encountered was overshadowed by the enthusiastic response he immediately received from African Americans interested in learning more about their backgrounds. Filmmaker Spike Lee, former United Nations ambassador Andrew Young, and actors LeVar Burton and Vanessa Williams were three of African Ancestry's celebrity clients, while over 2,000 others paid about $300 or $350 for the company's DNA tests in its first year in business. Customers could choose to have either the paternal line (though the Y chromosome, the genetic marker responsible for the development of male characteristics) or the maternal line (through mitochondrial DNA) investigated; a discount was available for the pair. The test was simple and painless—the customer took a cell sample from the inside of the cheek with a swab—and could be handled entirely by mail, with a guarantee of confidentiality.
Customers, who were often able to put Kittles's results together with bits of family oral history to fill in blanks in their family trees, had strong emotional responses to what they learned from African Ancestry's tests. James Jacobs, who knew of a Louisiana ancestor called Jacko Congo, told the Houston Chronicle that "the feeling is hard to describe, like having a long-lost parent and you found them." Many customers made plans to visit African countries after receiving their test results. Kittles's tests also confirmed what researchers had long suspected; around 30 percent of African Americans had European ancestors, primarily due to the rape of slave women by white slaveholders. Kittles himself found German ancestry on his father's side and identified a Portuguese forbear in Paige's background, and he observed that his own research, as well as other work showing the frequency of African ancestry among Europeans and European Americans, further weakened the idea of race as a scientific category.
African Ancestry continued to grow and to gain national attention; an article on the company appeared in People in the fall of 2004. By that time, Kittles had been hired as an associate professor at the Ohio State University medical school, in the department of molecular virology, immunology, and medical genetics. Controversy continued to dog him—an anonymous letter was submitted to Ohio State's search committee, accusing him of blurring scientific and for-profit work—but it was his strong record as a prostate cancer researcher, not his work with African Ancestry, that interested his new employer. By 2005 Rick Kittles was on his way to prominence in both academic and public spheres.
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Richmond Times-Dispatch, January 31, 1994, p. C1.
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"Milestones Leading to the NHGC," National Human Genome Center, www.genomecenter.howard.edu/milestones.htm (March 1, 2005).
"Rick A. Kittles," Ohio State University Medical School, http://cancergenetics.med.ohio-state.edu/2749.cfm (March 1, 2005).
—James M. Manheim
Brief BiographiesBiographies: Dan Jacobson Biography - Dan Jacobson comments: to Barbara Knutson (1959–2005) Biography - PersonalRick Kittles Biography - Concocted African Ancestry, Directed Prostate Cancer Study, Callers Jammed Howard Switchboard, Attracted Celebrity Customers