It was about 4am when his phone buzzed with a message from far away. He read it once, twice, three times before he woke his wife to tell her the news.
“I’m a prince,” he whispered as she blinked herself awake. “A prince.”
Jay Speights, an interfaith pastor from Maryland, US, could hardly believe the words as he formed them in his mouth. Him? A prince? He grew up in New Jersey. He lives in an apartment. He does not even own a car.
Speights, 66, had spent much of his life wondering about his forebears, probing public records until the trail went cold. Like many black Americans who are descendants of slaves, Speights could find little written evidence of his family’s history. In April, he turned to a DNA test from Ancestry in the hope that something, somewhere might turn up.
He was identified as the distant cousin of a man named Houanlokonon Deka – a descendant of a royal line in Benin, a small nation that once housed West Africa’s biggest slave port. At the urging of a friend, he ran his DNA data through another database that looks for matches between African Americans and Africans who have taken such tests.
Within minutes of entering his information into the database, Speights said, the website lit up with a result. It said “royal DNA”.
Four hundred years after the first enslaved Africans arrived in colonial Virginia, Speights is grappling with his newfound identity as the descendant of slaves and the African kings who put them in chains. His internal reckoning serves as a conduit for discussion in the United States over the impact of slavery and racism, and the struggle to find a path forward as a nation of former enslavers and the enslaved.
“The history of the Atlantic slave trade, colonialism and enslavement are really violent histories that led to families being torn apart, histories and cultures being stolen from many individuals and huge harms to African Americans,” said Deborah Bolnick, an anthropological geneticist at the University of Connecticut. “DNA testing has been used as a tool to help them start to recover that loss.”
The king from whom Speights is probably descended was one of several who captured and sold slaves – typically members of rival tribes or captives of war – to European merchants, who then loaded them onto ships bound for Brazil, Haiti and the United States.