Family Twist Podcast Episode 36: Elation and anger: Finding roots in Ghana
Our guest this episode is Ron Claiborne. Ron was part of ABC News for more than three decades, and he discovered his ancestry live on an episode of “Good Morning America.” Millions of Americans refer to themselves as African American, yet many can only trace their ancestry post-slavery. Ron found his roots in Ghana, in the Ashanti region. “God, I wish my father was here to learn this with me. He would have been so delighted,” Ron said.
“I was floating for a long time. … Elation turned to anger. Trying to imagine my distant relative. What happened to him or her hundreds of years ago. The agony. Put on a slave ship.”
Ron called his outrage “righteous” but he wanted to make something constructive of it, and immediately decided to visit Ghana.” “I have to touch this land; connect with it.”
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This is Family Twist, a podcast about astonishing adoption stories and finding family via DNA magic. I'm Kendall. And I'm Corey. And we've been inseparable partners in life since 03, 04, 05, also known as March 4th, 2005. In January 2018, our found family journey took us 3000 miles from the San Francisco Bay area to New England, where we now live near my biological father, two half siblings and their families.
and the adventure continues. Our guest today is Ron Claiborne. Ron was with ABC News for 32 years as a national and international news correspondent and was also the news anchor of the weekend edition of Good Morning America for 14 years. Welcome Ron, thanks for joining us. Thank you very much. Now I read an article that you wrote about a really amazing discovery that you had in life and
You start off speaking about as a black American, you were frustrated because you really didn't have access to your full lineage. Like you could only go back a couple of generations and couldn't keep digging further and further and further back to find out where you were from in Africa. Right, right. I mean, that's true of millions and millions of African-Americans. We define ourselves as African-Americans, but have no idea from where in Africa our families came or when.
or how they ended up here. So it was something I was always curious about, because my father was curious about it. Yeah, yeah. So what made you decide to go ahead and take a DNA test to see if you could dig into this? Well, you know, it's just about, oh, 10, 15 years ago, I saw an article, I can't even remember where, it could have been Newsweek Magazine, about the DNA testing. I knew nothing about it. And when I saw it, immediately I was...
Intrigued and curious because I thought you know here was the possibility if these tests are accurate To figure out to find out where my family came from something that I thought I would never know I figured that was a locked door that would never be opened right right and So you reached out to African ancestry and what did you find out there? well, I I was as a correspondent for ABC news not only was there was the
personal side, I was curious about my own lineage, ancestry, but I also knew this would be a good story. So I proposed it as a story, not about me, to Good Morning America, and the producers said, hey, it would be even a better story if you took the test and found out where your lineage came from. And it would be revealed, I would still do the story, but as part of it, it would be revealed live.
on Good Morning America. Was there any hesitation there to have these results revealed live, not knowing what your reaction was going to be? Well, you know, it wasn't so much hesitation about having the results released live on TV. I didn't want the story to be about me. I mean, remember, initially I proposed it as a story about this testing and how it opened the possibility for Black Americans to find out what their ancestry was, where in Africa
they came from. And I've always been a little bit wary about becoming the story. But, you know, so we merged the two. I would do the report about this new technology, this new science, and all the opportunities that it opened up to African Americans, and find out for myself. And, you know, you got to make it's a dramatic way to learn the results. So I went along with it. No, real hesitation. No.
Absolutely. I mean, I do see how that makes the whole story telling more compelling because you've got this very interesting groundbreaking information, but also here's what happens. You know, lie. Yeah. Yes. And it was exciting. I'll tell you. I don't know if you've ever seen the clip and I'd go back and look at it. And I was dazed when this was revealed. Yeah. So Robin Roberts reveals your results and
What is immediately going on in your head? Yeah, i'm sitting there on the set and there's you know, they play the piece And then robin says okay now we're going to reveal uh what the result was. I remember there was an easel with a um with a map of africa With a couple of I couldn't tell because it was too far away Two countries that were highlighted. So I thought well, this is probably the result But I looked away because I didn't want to know I wanted to hear it from her
And I remember her saying, and the result is, and she paused dramatically because she's very good at her job and said the Ashanti people of Ghana. And I'll tell you, I, um, in my mind, I was not in that studio. I was not on TV. I was on another planet, just dazzled, amazed, overwhelmed with emotion. And, and I kept thinking about my father who had died 10 years earlier.
and had shown an interest in African history. When I was a child, which kindled my curiosity interest, I just remember thinking, God, I wish my father was here to learn this with me, because it would have blown him away. He would have been so delighted. What brought you back to reality? Like, how long were you sort of in this day? Honestly, I was floating for a long time. Everything...
was a day's and the segment ended and I talked to Robin a little bit during the commercial, but I was still, honestly, I was very stunned. And so the segment's over, I'm released from the show and I went outside and at first I started walking and just kept thinking about this and thinking about this. Ghana, what do I know about Ghana? What do I know about Ashanti? Not much.
with emotion and I remember I went down into the subway because it's a long way home. So I walked for a while and I went down into the subway and the more I thought about this, I was elated for a long time. And then that elation evolved into anger. I'll be honest, I became angry thinking about trying to imagine this distant relative. The test by the way was my maternal side.
about who this person was and what happened to him or her hundreds of years ago and the agony and dislocation and awfulness of being put on a slave ship for the Middle Passage, which by all accounts was horrific. People pressed together down below, not enough air, not enough food for months before they were taken forcibly.
the Americas and that that made me sad and it made me angry. Yeah. So then what do you do with those emotions? Well, I, that's subsided. It doesn't go away and I didn't want it to go away. I felt it was a kind of a righteous outrage. I wanted to feel that, but I wanted to make something constructive out of it and by the time I got home, I thought I'm going to Ghana.
I had no idea what I was going to do when I got there, but I literally went home, got on the computer and purchased a ticket to Accra, a flight to Accra a few months later, and figured I will just go there and see what I see, experience what I experienced. But I have to, I have to touch this land. I have to be there. I have to feel it. I have to, you know, connect with it. And I did.
Did your journalistic instincts kick in and did you do a ton of research before you went? Or was it the plan? Oh, I started researching the Yashante and their amazing history. They were never conquered by the British. The British essentially reached a truce with them. And remember, this was in the late 19th, mid 19th century when the British Empire was the most powerful military in the world. And I felt this sense of pride about being.
part, Ashanti. Yeah. Wow. So did you have a pretty good sense of what to expect when you got there, or was it you just? Man, I had no idea. But what happened was I had told a friend of mine about this result and my intention to go to Ghana. And then one day prior to leaving Accra, she calls me and says, I'm in a cab in Chicago. And the cab driver has a decal on the
the shield between the front and the back, which says Ghanaian Taxi Drivers Association or something like that. I said, well, let me talk to him. Put me on the phone with him. So she hands me the phone and I tell this guy, a complete stranger, a truncated version of my story. And he says, you have to meet my brother. My brother, I'm Ashanti and my brother is in Kumasi, the Ashanti capital in interior of Ghana.
Um, so, so I take his brother's name and number. And when I get to Ghana, uh, I, I catch a bus to, uh, I got called on my head of time to, uh, Kumasi and I hung out with this guy's brother for three or four days, who taught me and told me all about the Ashanti culture and history. And we went to the King's palace because there's still an Ashanti King, the Asante Asante Sana. And, and it was just a.
nicest guy just welcomed me like family got to meet his parents and And spend some time in kamasi. It was an amazing Amazing experience. Yeah, so wild. Are you an adventurous soul in general or is this just sounds like? This is not unusual. Okay, I do this kind of like I love to I love to travel as my father did and I love to study and immerse myself
in other cultures, because it's part of the world. And I want to get outside of what I'm comfortable with and familiar with. That's great. Because I think there are a lot of people who would have this discovery that it would just be nagging at them for years and years because they're not going to, you know, take that leap and purchase the ticket and just go, you know. But wow. I mean, what an experience. I mean, it was.
just culturally, like what was it like for you to just be there and know that this is where your ancestors were from? Again, it's mostly an emotion. I did do the research as you asked, but it was an emotional feeling, an emotional sense. Every Ghanaian I met, I would start telling them my story. What surprised me was I talked to a guy.
who was a minor government official, and he told me that many people in Ghana did not know that African-Americans had roots in Africa. That is, it was not well known. In fact, he said sometime earlier, the television series Roots was shown in Ghana on national television, and people were surprised. They thought that African-Americans were indigenous to America.
And a lot of people are not aware of this connection in both ways. And look, a lot of Americans aren't curious about or interested in Africa. My father was, I was, that connection was important to me. And making that trip, that travel, that pilgrimage was important to me. But I was surprised.
And I've been to Africa a number of times. How many Africans actually don't know a lot about the slave trade themselves. Wow, that is surprising. It is and it's sad. I mean, history is important. And that history is important to Africans and Americans.
Did you feel embraced by the people there? Oh, if you haven't been to Ghana, go to Ghana. Even if you don't have this sort of biological connection, Ghanaians are some of the warmest, kindest, most hospitable people I've met anywhere in the world. So it was great. It was great. I remember I was writing in a cab with one guy. I just started spewing out this story. And I was saying, you know.
Can you see it in me? Do you see it? And he's looking in the rearview mirror and saying, yeah, I can see it. Yeah. I think you do look a Shanti. And I felt so proud of that. Wow. Did you have any kind of feelings of home while you were there? Like, was there just something that, were there certain areas that were like pulling you in? Well, you know, I don't know if one imagines that or if it's, there's this real...
spiritual connection, but I felt it. I mean, maybe I was grafting it onto it, but I felt like, no, this is, this is in a sense home from California. And I spent most of my life here. But there was a sense that there was a connection to these people and this land and this history. And I felt it. I felt it.
Were the people that you spoke to kind of surprised how you made your discovery through the DNA test? I don't know how well-known it is. Yeah, it was 10, 15 years ago, so it was not well-known in Africa. It was not well-known in this country. So people were curious, like, what? How does this work? How does it work? And it has to do with looking for specific mutations that are peculiar to a specific people. The biology or the...
the science is very complicated. But, uh, and then there are other people who question his accuracy. And by the way, the test subsequently connected my, they did a paternal, uh, test to the Timney people of Sierra Leone. And just out of curiosity, I had the test done again, about six months ago. I wonder if the same result will come up because I'm a bit of a cynic about this. And they did. So, you know, if it was inaccurate, it was inaccurate twice.
Right. Well, yeah, I was going to ask of where your DNA journey kind of continued after you got back from Ghana. Was it, I mean, were you, that was the big answer you were looking for, but what did you, were there more questions that you had that you wanted to continue researching? Well, I was curious about the paternal side. I mean, this is the maternal side of the test and paternal side was again, the Temne people of Sierra Leone. And so I started researching them. I'd like to go there someday. But this is, this is not, it's not like...
as if this is resolved and it's over. It's a continuing feeling and connection. I've gone back to Ghana once since then. And I'll tell you a quick story. I was in a cab a few years later and I saw the cab driver had the scar and there's a scar on your cheek that the Ashanti put culturally, that's part of their connection. And I said, hey, are you, were you?
Are you from Ghana?" I said, yeah, I'm from Ghana. Are you Ashanti? He said, oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. He touches the scar. I told him my story. We start talking about it. And then subsequently, when I got home, I realized I'm missing my phone. I don't have my phone. I called the number from my landline. Remember landline? Oh, yeah. And maybe 45 minutes later, the guy answers the phone.
And he said, oh yeah, I found it on the back seat. And I said, well, where are you? He had gone back to the taxi garage and was turning in the garage in pretty remote Queens. And I said, well, listen, let's make a plan. I can meet you somewhere tomorrow. He says, no, no, no, no, no, no, I'm going to, I will bring you the phone. I said, come on, that's not necessary. He said, no, I insist. So he drives back in from Queens, takes him, I don't know, half an hour, 40 minutes to meet me on the corner. I go outside.
And, you know, I have some cash because I want to pay him for his time. And he said, he said, well, here's your phone. And I said, well, let me, you know, let me give you some money. And he raises his hands and jumps back and says, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. I said, time is money. Please allow me. He says, absolutely not. Your family. And that was just so warm and wonderful. Wow. Your family, he said, it was great. It was great. Yeah.
Oh man, what a great connection. To, you know, just to, I mean, just like, you know, we talk about how small the world really is, you know, just to have this, you know, sort of.
coincidental, you know, accidental kind of situation. And yeah, wow, that just, I mean, I'm sure that really warmed your heart. Yeah, you know, for years, because I thought about this a lot and figured, I assumed this was unknowable where my lineage came from specific to Africa. And I always imagined vividly at this picture of this door, this...
big heavy door that was closed and the answer was on the other side of that door. And I would, and I just thought, well, I'll never know. That door will always be closed. And you asked about after the GMA appearance, among the kaleidoscope of images that went through my mind after this revelation, I imagine that door being opened and this blinding light behind it. And within that light was...
The answer, Ashanti, Ghana. I felt so proud, proud, I was proud. Wow. So as you mentioned, I mean, this is, you did this kind of early on when a lot of people didn't know about the possibilities of DNA testing, and now, you know, 40 million people have done tests. So have you had any distant relatives pop up from Ghana?
No, not yet, but I'm in the phone book, so they can call me. No, interestingly enough, and 40 million people, I didn't know that, but very few people I know have taken the test. I think more, and it's not for me to tell people what to do, but I think for African-Americans in particular, but any Americans to take these tests and find out your roots is, it's eye opening.
It's life-changing, if you care, if you care. Some people don't care. Right, right. Had you thought about, though, just potentially finding distant relatives? Is that something you're open to having relationships? Oh, yeah, yeah. In fact, last summer, I started trying to trace through census records my family. And as you mentioned in the introduction, I kinda hit a wall in the mid-19th century. But I did find a white ancestor.
who was from Northern Ireland, who had immigrated from Belfast in 1841. So I'm certainly open to exploring that too. It's kind of hard to trace the records that much farther than 1841. And then the African-American side, obviously meticulous records of slaves weren't kept. Right. So it kind of begins around 1870s.
that you find the census records, but before that it's tough. Right, yeah. What was that second trip to Ghana like compared to the first? Well, I went for work and stayed. Well, different, different. I was reporting on some stories there and getting to know the Ghanaian people a little bit better from a professional point of view. I did not go to Kamasi, I went to Cape Coast.
There's a number of slave fortresses, British and Portuguese, from which the, whatever the number was, 30, 40 million people were shipped to the Americas. And that was a different kind of experience. It was in Cape Coast, this old Portuguese fortress with literally the door of no return through which the slaves were boarded onto the ships. That was a powerful...
emotionally powerful experience too. And then within this fortress, there's a church. These are good Christians who shipped people off as slaves by the hundreds of thousands and millions. And on Sunday, they went to church, which I found ironic. Right. Right. Wow. Wow. Where are your emotions right now when you think about just this whole experience? Honey, you described, you know, the kind of the run the gamut, but where are they now?
You know, every time, every time I tell the story, I still feel this excitement, this thrill of re-experiencing it. What I would like to do is go to Sierra Leone because that, you know, Sierra, it's a tough country to get to and it's a very, very poor country. Ghana in comparison is affluent within the, within Africa.
I would like to sort of make that connection and maybe go with a group. I've met some people and doing some research who made the same connection to the Timni people of Sierra Leone. So I think it's a group experience. It might be exciting. When I went to Ghana, it was by myself and it needed to be by myself. But I would like to go with some of my people, if you will, and experience it together, the food, the culture, the history.
geography. Scarry Lone is supposed to be beautiful, beautiful country. So that's that's something to look forward to. Absolutely, yeah that's exciting. Yeah, that would be a really really cool experience. Well if you do that, we'd love to hear about it, you know. Sure, of course, I'll tell you. Wonderful. Well it's, you know, I was just so excited to read your story and I knew that this would, that you'd be a great guest, you know, and was happy to have you share the story.
But congratulations, just on finding your roots. Thank you, thank you. It helps me feel a little more complete. Yeah. Complete. I think that's the word for it. I get that. Yeah, wonderful. Well, Ron, thank you so much for joining us. Hey, thanks for having me. Really appreciate it. Love talking about this subject, and I love to encourage others to do these genetic tests. Find out where you're from. It does matter.
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