Changing Lives, One Reveal at a Time
Posted: Mar 31 2014
Cecily: What brought you to founding African Ancestry?
Gina: I had a career in product management where I launched new products and line extensions. I always wanted to market to African American communities but didn’t have the opportunity. So when I decided to leave, I met Dr. Rick Kettles and he had the ability to trace people’s African ancestry, but he didn’t have the infrastructure. Creating African Ancestry with him gave me the opportunity to use my skill set and market something that had never existed before to a group of people that I’m passionate about.
Cecily: Why did you believe that there was a demand for such a service?
Gina: I didn’t know the exact demand, but I did know that the community was demanding it of Rick, my partner. There was a newspaper that found out about Rick’s work and he became inundated with requests. We didn’t go the traditional route of quantifying the demand, but we knew that people were interested.
Cecily: So where are your ancestors from?
Gina: My maternal ancestry is Fulani, specific to the Fulani living in Nigeria and my paternal ancestry is Hausa, also from Nigeria.
Cecily: Have you traveled to Nigeria before?
Gina: No, I have not had the chance but I have traveled to Cameroon, Ethiopia and Tanzania.
Cecily: What was one of the most memorable reveals that you have done?
Gina: I did a reveal on the Capital Jazz Cruise that was for Violinist Ken Ford. His results came back as Mandinka. Whenever I tell a black man that his ancestry is Mandinka I get the same response; like yes with a strong since of pride. Ken looks like what you would think a Mandinka warrior would look like, very strong and attractive. Through my research, I found that the Mandinka are the griots in Senegal and are the keepers of history through oral tradition through song and music. And the instruments that they use are string instruments.
Cecily: Like the kora?
Ken wanted to major in music but decided not too because he was only able to major in music education and he didn’t want to be an educator. In turns out that he ended up being an educator anyway because he is founder of an organization that teaches black children how to play the violin. Ken was really touched by the reveal especially when I went deeper about the griots in Senegal. Knowing that his ancestry is Mandinka, gives him a sense of purpose for why he does what he does.
Cecily: There was a man that worked at my high school who was keen on saying he was not African in any way. Given the research you’ve done, what would you say to that person?
Gina: I’d say slavery works. Meaning the whole purpose of slavery was to disconnect us and make us believe that we don’t have a past and we don’t have a history. I feel sad that there are black people who don’t think they are African, but I understand because slavery works and it was very effective in accomplishing its goals.
Cecily: What do you think about how trendy African fabric has become?
Gina: It’s a double-edged sword. I’m glad to see it because it gives me more options as a consumer and it brings a sense of beauty that I enjoy and I’m proud of. My hope that it doesn’t become trendy and it’s not something that comes and goes.
I think it is important to have simply Cecily in the mix even if it is for people who just think that African fabric is cute because it is essentially an entry point into more understanding so they may eventually become connected. I think that you are playing a significant role in the education whether you know it or not.
Cecily: How does Simply Cecily fit into your style?
Gina: What Simply Cecily does for me in terms of my wardrobe is it gives me a way to express my Africanness in a contemporary way. I wear my Simply Cecily pieces when I am in front of large groups representing African Ancestry. Also
I don’t wear traditional clothes because it doesn’t fit my style. I prefer to pay homage to the history and connection in a way that fits who I am and Simply Cecily allows me to do that. You are my go to designer and I always get a lot of compliments when I wear your work.