Back to the Future

Henry Louis Gates. Jr

In July 2008 a group of Brooklyn middle schoolers and high schoolers went to Africa as part of the Journey for Change service learning initiative. Founded by activist Malaak Compton-Rock, wife of comedian Chris Rock, Journey for Change is unique in that it serves both the recipients of its dedicated volunteer programs and the volunteers themselves. To illustrate, this recent trip enabled thirty teens and preteens from the Bushwick Salvation Army Community Center to provide assistance to some of the hardest-hit townships in South Africa. Within Diepsloot and Soweto there are many orphaned and vulnerable children (OVC) and households led by grandmothers, a result of their own children succumbing to AIDS. While certainly not an easy place to visit, the students rose to the challenge, spending two weeks assisting children, NGO workers, and elderly South Africans with a gamut of critical household tasks.

With the students' interest in and concern for Africa piqued, Journey for Change reached out to to investigate their personal ties to the continent. The kids, of course, knew that their origins lay in some amorphous concept called "Africa," but that was pretty much it. As Chris Rock explains in my program African American Lives 2, knowing specifics about one's heritage carries great transformative potential. He says in this clip that had he known as a child that he was descended from Julius Caesar Tingman, a freed slave and Union soldier, "it would have taken away the inevitability that I was going to be nothing." With this idea in mind, AfricanDNA was asked to determine the backgrounds of the Journey for Change volunteers. I was honored to join the group at the Time Warner Center in New York City, where I revealed to each student where his or her ancestors came from. The result, as you can see from Chris's reaction in the accompanying clip, was tremendously emotionally satisfying.


Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Editor in Chief
Oxford African American Studies Center