My Malagasy Diaspora Tantara: Diaspora Stories Told Around the World
Today, an estimated 300,000 Malagasy people live outside of Madagascar and live all around the globe. No diaspora story is alike but what we share is that love and connection to Madagascar that we carry in our hearts, new hometowns, and life. Here are our stories.
Today: Shanna Brown was researching a few years ago when she stumbled upon her family ancestry. A record from the 1880 US Census came with astonishing results. Shanna was actually able to pinpoint exactly where in Africa her ancestors were from, a feeling she says left her with actual goosebumps. As Shanna continues to research her roots and connect with her ancestral lands of Madagascar and Comoros, she leaves us with encouraging advice that has rung true for her: "Always know your history. Never let anyone rewrite it for you. To know who we are is to know our ancestors and be one with them".
When Carter G. Woodson launched “Negro History Week” in February 1926, which would turn into Black History Month, his purpose was for people of African descent to tell their own narrative. A narrative of our accomplishments and of our history, much of which had been forgotten. Much of which had been lost. Here is my story.
I am Shanna. I was raised in a small town in Texas, United States. As taught in American schools to many Black American children, I was the descendant of enslaved peoples brought in chains from West Africa, loaded into boats and taken on the arduous journey called the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. That’s as far as my knowledge went of my enslaved ancestors’ stories until I decided to take a DNA test in 2016 to find out where in West Africa these Africans came from. Was I Nigerian? Was I Ghanaian? What was my story and where did my people come from?
Patiently awaiting the results of the DNA test, my friend and I would joke about my origins. “I bet my ancestors were from Mali,” I would exclaim as I thought of the Fulani and mysterious Dogon people who populate the country. The day I opened those results was the day my life changed. There was Nigeria, and Mali, and Ghana, and something I had never considered before called Bantu. As I studied my results, I saw trace amounts of South Asian, Polynesian, and Middle Eastern DNA, which was quite shocking. On some DNA platforms it was listed as Oceanian and on others Southeast Asian. Why would I have that? To my surprise, the test also showed me relatives who had DNA tested! My journey to uncover my ancestors had begun!
I joined a couple of Black genealogy groups and noticed that people were receiving Continental African relatives! My friend was constantly uncovering Fulani and Hausa relatives that ranged from Mali to Nigeria. I didn’t have any to my disappointment. So, I uploaded my results to various platforms to dig deeper to find my African relatives. As I began to search, I began to discover relatives with surnames like Ratsimbazafy, Andrianavalona, Soloarivony, and many others that were foreign to me. They all had one thing in common, Madagascar! Then I noticed relatives from Seychelles, Reunion, and Mauritius. My first reaction, as many uninformed of geography and history was to think, “There are people in these places and how am I related to them?” As many Black American DNA testers were getting relatives from West Africa, the exact opposite was happening to me and it was very confusing. Matter of fact, I had more relatives from the Indian Ocean Islands, than most people were getting from West Africa! I began to reach out to these relatives. Many were as confused as I was. I knew there was a hidden history here.
As I began to trace my grandparents and their road from South Carolina to Florida, I came upon a man named John Brown, living in Colleton, South Carolina around people whose descendants were showing as relatives. The shocking news about John was that he was born between 1823 and 1825 in Madagascar! He specifically stated in the US 1880 Census, he was born in Madagascar to a mother who was from Madagascar and a father from “Juhanna.” I would later find out through research that Juhanna was the historical name for the island of Adjouan, which is now part of Comoros. Wow! The father of my great great- grandmother, who ran off at a very young age to get married was from Madagascar! I then went on to upload my DNA to a site that could tie me in to specific ethnic groups included in their database. There it was, 3.4% Merina and 1% Makua!
There was John Brown and Madagascar in my blood, in my genetics, in my history. It was a shocking find, but it brought about more questions about who I am. I began to dig deeper and read about the Malagasy enslaved peoples who were brought to the Carolinas and Virginia. I could not help but wonder why we are not taught about the Malagasy influence and descendants who have always been part of the African Diaspora and the American Fabric. For example, the Carolina Gold rice that came with our ancestors from Madagascar that would be a bedrock of the American economy during it’s time and the root of our Gullah cuisine? Including the many rice dishes I enjoyed as a child from my great grandmother like pilau, purloo, yellow rice, and red rice.
At the end of the day, I am all of my ancestors. I am a part of the forgotten Malagasy Diaspora that was taken from their homeland to toil a land under oppression and terror. A strong people who endured the unimaginable and persevered. Whose survival was dependent on integrating into the larger Black American population. But with more stories like mine and more connections found, we are no longer forgotten. I will never know what John Brown’s Malagasy name really was, as with a lot of our Black heritage in the US, it was intentionally lost to history. But what I do know is that he and many others will continue to live on through each one of us.