Geneticist Rick Kittles, a professor at Ohio State University, became one of the hottest young scientific researchers in the country in the early 2000s. When he was hired by Ohio State in 2004, the Columbus Dispatch reported that he would bring to the university more than $1 million in research grants in addition to his teaching expertise. He was a nationally recognized investigator whose specialties encompassed such vital topics as prostate cancer and the role of genetics in disease.
Yet it was outside of the academic world that Kittles made headlines. His company, African Ancestry, Inc., used his expertise in genetic testing to put African Americans, from celebrities to ordinary genealogy buffs, in touch with their roots in a way that Americans of European descent took for granted but that a displaced and enslaved people had mostly only dreamed of. Kittles offered his customers a glimpse into their specific African ancestries, pinpointing an actual African ethnic group to which one or two of the customer's ancestors had belonged. The path that led to the founding of African Ancestry was complicated and not without controversy, but Kittles found that his research often fed into the deep interest in African-American genealogy that had been awakened by the publication of Alex Haley's book Roots in the 1970s.
Rick Antonius Kittles was born in 1976(?) in Sylvania, Georgia, in an area his family had inhabited for several generations, but he grew up in Central Islip, New York, on Long Island outside of New York City. When he was young he hoped to become a rap musician, but he was curious from the start about human origins and differences. "I used to always wonder in school why everybody looks different," Kittles told Alice Thomas of the Columbus Dispatch. "I was always the only black kid in the class."
Concocted African Ancestry
By the time he reached his teenage years, Kittles found his curiosity intensifying as his white classmates began to identify more strongly with European ethnic groups. "I would say, 'Africa'" when other students asked him about his own roots, Kittles was quoted as saying in the Seattle Times. "Other times I would make stuff up and say, 'I'm a Mandingo.' That bothered me, not knowing more about where in Africa."
Kittles attended the Rochester Institute of Technology in upstate New York as an undergraduate, earning a biology degree there in 1989. He taught biology at the high school level in the New York and Washington areas for several years, winning admission to the graduate biology program at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. As a graduate student, Kittles did research on melanin, the pigment that darkens human skin and protects it from solar radiation; Africans and other equatorial peoples frequently exposed to the sun have higher levels of melanin than do humans of European descent. Giving occasional public lectures about melanin, Kittles speculated that high levels of the chemical in the inner ear might account for what some considered a heightened sensitivity to music and rhythm among humans of African descent.
He also investigated interactions between melanin and prescription drugs, and between melanin and illicit drugs such as cocaine. Interest in public-health implications would be typical of Kittles's scholarly research. His published papers, most of them (as is typical in the hard sciences) done in collaboration with other investigators, bore lengthy titles like "High Incidence of Microsatellite Instability in Colorectal Cancer from African Americans." But he gravitated toward subjects with broad social importance, and his eventual scholarly specialties were all hot topics: prostate cancer and its underlying causes, the relationship between genetics and disease prevalence more generally, and the validity (or lack of validity) of the concept of race.
Directed Prostate Cancer Study
As he was completing his doctoral degree at George Washington University in 1998, Kittles was hired as an assistant professor of microbiology at Washington's Howard University and was named director of the African American Hereditary Prostate Cancer (AAHPC) Study Network at the university's National Human Genome Center. This project involved setting up national network of mostly African-American medical scientists who would enroll 100 families with at least four members who were afflicted with prostate cancer; blood samples were subjected to genetic research, with the intent of finding a genetic marker that might explain the high incidence of the disease among African-American men.
Kittles faced a public-relations problem of long standing in his new post, for the AAHPC Study Network was a government-funded project. "There is very strong resistance in the African-American community to participate in government-sponsored research," Kittles pointed out to the Chicago Sun-Times. "The first thing they say is 'Tuskegee,'" referring to the infamous 40-year United States Public Health Service study in which hundreds of black men were unknowingly denied proper treatment for syphilis infections. Kittles and his associates hoped that a project carried out mostly by African American researchers might break down these walls of mistrust.
Another research enterprise in which Kittles became involved at the beginning of his career was the African Burial Ground Project in New York City, where Howard researchers led by anthropologist Michael Blakey exhumed the remains of 408 African Americans from an eighteenth-century graveyard. Some of the research followed traditional anthropological models: caskets were examined in search of links to traditional African practices, and the scientists learned what they could from dry bones about how these enslaved African Americans had spent their working life. But Kittles was able to merge anthropology and biology, gathering DNA samples from the remains and comparing them against a growing database of DNA obtained from modern Africans in order to find out where the eighteenth-century African Americans had originally come from.
It was while doing this work that Kittles and his associates had a brainstorm. If they could trace the origins of buried African Americans, they could do the same thing with living individuals. As a pilot project, they began to gather genetic material from Boston-area school children. The idea gained support from a group of Boston ministers who helped organize the program. Boston was selected because its African-American population was relatively self-contained; many black Boston families could trace their roots to the American Revolution or even earlier.
Callers Jammed Howard Switchboard
As he began to work toward realizing his ideas, Kittles encountered both excitement and controversy. When word of his efforts leaked out, Howard found its switchboard jammed with calls from reporters and from ordinary African Americans who wanted to know how they could sign up to be tested. Investors sensed something big in the making, and Washington Business Forward estimated that if just one-tenth of one percent of the 33 million Americans of African descent took Kittles's ancestry test each year, his potential annual gross would be in the $10 million range.
The obstacles in his way were just as sizable as the potential. Scientific observers questioned whether Kittles could generate useful results in view of the fact that DNA testing could illuminate only a small sliver of a person's ancestry, and questions were raised about the size of the African DNA database on which he planned to rely. Kittles ran into trouble with the government funders who had underwritten the African Burial Ground research as he moved toward profit-making enterprises, and he parted ways with his former associate Michael Blakey in a disagreement over the new project's aims. Kittles had a few fierce critics within the African-American community as well; charging African Americans a fee to learn about their African origins was "like charging Holocaust victims a fee to confirm their relatives were in fact gassed," University of Maryland anthropologist Fatima Jackson told the on-line magazine Salon.
Though he hoped to launch African Ancestry, Inc. by 2001, Kittles faced months of delays as he patiently worked to answer the objections of critics and deal with the complexities of running a business while working in the academic world. He took on a partner, Washington businesswoman Gina Paige, to handle the financial side of African Ancestry, taking the title of Scientific Director for himself. Compiling data gathered by other researchers, he amassed a large enough sample of African DNA to pass muster with other scientists. His collection of 10,000 samples "to me sounds pretty good," University of Chicago professor Chung-I Wu told the Chicago Tribune (as quoted by the Knight Ridder Tribune News Service). And he was careful to inform potential customers of the method's limitations, pointing out that a person's ancestors over several centuries numbered in the hundreds or thousands, only two of which (one on the father's side, one on the mother's) could be identified by African Ancestry's DNA tests.
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.
Boston Globe, August 13, 2000, p. B3.
Chicago Sun-Times, May 14, 1998, p. 8.
Columbus Dispatch, March 18, 2004, p. B1.
Houston Chronicle, February 24, 2005, p. Star-1.
Human Biology, August 2003, p. 449.
Knight-Ridder Tribune News Service, September 9, 2003, p. 1.
Los Angeles Times, May 29, 2000, p. 12.
People, September 27, 2004, p. 97.
Richmond Times-Dispatch, January 31, 1994, p. C1.
Seattle Times, May 30, 2000, p. A1; April 25, 2003, p. A7.
Times (London, England), April 26, 2000.
Washington Business Forward, August 2001.
"About Us," African Ancestry, Inc., www.africanancestry.com (March 1, 2005).
"Flesh and Blood and DNA," Salon, http://archive.salon.com/health/feature/2000/05/12/roots/print.html (March 1, 2005).
"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