African American DNA Research: 3 Tips for Communicating and Collaborating with Matches

Melanie Mohler

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What should you know when doing African American DNA research? Guest blogger Adrienne Abiodun offers 3 tips for communicating and collaborating with African American DNA matches.

Thank you to Adrienne Abiodun for writing this guest blog post. Adrienne Abiodun is a professional genetic genealogist on the DNA Research Team at Legacy Tree Genealogists. Her research passions include African American genealogy (traditional and DNA), Unknown Parentage (DNA), Historical U.S. Deep South, Antebellum South, Colonial, and Lineage Society. When she’s not conducting research for others she enjoys spending time with her two favorite DNA matches: her children ages 12 and 10.

African American DNA Research

Your DNA research may lead you to interacting with people from cultures and backgrounds that are different from your own. Even if you identify as Black/African American, others with African heritage may identify differently from you. Black/African Americans come from a variety of backgrounds. Their cultural diversity, regional location, and lived experiences are multi-dynamic. Conducting family research focused on ancestors who identified as Black or African American using traditional research methodologies and DNA can be both exciting, challenging and even a touchy subject for some.

Whether you’re researching for yourself or assisting someone else to learn about their roots, learning to “read the room” becomes an essential skill in African American DNA research. A lack thereof can make or break our chance of successfully collaborating with others invested in African American family research.

This article will focus on three tips to keep in mind when communicating and collaborating with those with African ancestry. But first, let’s look at some numbers of Black/African Americans in the U.S. African American population 2020 U.S. Census data found 46,936,733 respondents identified as Black or African American alone or in combination (1). This number included respondents who identified exclusively as African American in addition to Jamaican, Haitian, as well as those with more recent ties to Sub-Saharan African countries such as Nigeria. Recent population studies elsewhere reported 47.9 million people self-identified as Black which accounts for 14.4 percent of the total U.S. population (2).

How does that population break down across the country? The majority (56 percent) of Black Americans reside in the U.S. South with 17 percent in the Northeast, another 17 percent in the Midwest and the remaining 10 percent in the West.

Proportion of African Americans in each U.S. state, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico as of the 2020 United States Census. Image created by Abbasi786786, available on Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 4.0, no changes made.

Keeping this data in mind, here are three tips for effectively communicating and collaborating with African American DNA matches:

1. Be mindful of labels—ask, don’t assume

If you’re not sure how your DNA match identifies or would like to be identified as, it never hurts to ask. Some Black Americans identify as such rather than African American because of the many generations that have passed from the time their African ancestor arrived in the U.S. In their minds the connection to Africa has been lost and they’re more American than African.
Alternatively, there are individuals who prefer African American to keep their African ancestors in the forefront of their memory no matter how many decades have passed since their African ancestors arrived in the U.S. There are also Black Americans with other racial backgrounds that they want to honor equally. They personally may wish to be acknowledged as American. Nonetheless, asking for clarification takes aways the guess work and potential for unintended offense.

The same goes for addressing ancestors. Although Black/African Americans were once enumerated as “Negro” or “Mulatto” on census records, calling a present-day individual by such would likely be very upsetting or off-putting (3). Furthermore, Black/African American descendants of those who were formerly enslaved may prefer that their ancestors not be addressed as “slaves,” which was how they were recorded in documents in the 1700s and 1800s. They may also be sensitive to language and labels such as “slave master” or “master.” “Enslaver” and “formerly enslaved” are preferred terminology in today’s world of African American family research.

2. Inquire about their research interests

When I began using DNA to learn more about my family history, I had ZERO interest in European ethnicity estimates or ancestors; my research interests and efforts were African ancestors only! Although I’ve since released some of the generational shame and anger connected to my inheritance of European DNA and ancestry, I can certainly relate to other African American people who for whatever reasons have very little interest in exploring European heritage.

It would have been nearly impossible to facilitate meaningful collaboration with me back then, or with anyone now if they do not share the same research interests as you. Knowing whether your Black/African American DNA matches want to learn more about a particular family (black or white, maternal or paternal) is worth inquiring about. Once this information is known, even if their interest is not aligned with yours, other means of collaboration may still be possible.

3. Seek family information directly

Sometimes DNA matches do not respond to messages right away, or ever. The absence of communication combined with a desire to learn more about our DNA matches’ ancestors may prompt us to seek information without direct communication. Skilled family researchers know how to work around unresponsive matches to identify their parents, grandparents, and so forth. While this may work in some cases, I’ve often found direct communication with matches Black/African American or of any background really is always best.

DNA may not lie, but it does not always bring clarity to complex family dynamics that are not easily understood, which can befuddle researchers. Present-day Black/African American families have many complexities that are sometimes the result of our history as far back as enslavement, or even further back. Direct communication with genetic matches to gain insight on what they understand to be true is always of value when researching any family.

Reaching out to your DNA matches can be intimidating at first, but it can ultimately be very rewarding. If you need a few more tips for contacting your DNA matches, you can download our free guide for contacting your DNA matches.

Download the FREE Guide for Contacting DNA Matches


  1. “New Population Counts for 62 Detailed Black or African American Groups,” United States Census Bureau ( accessed 7 May 2024).
  2. “Facts About the U.S. Black Population,” Pew Research Center ( accessed 7 May 2024).
  3. “African Americans and the Federal Census, 1790-1930,” National Archives ( accessed 7 May 2024).

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1 Comment

  1. Simona MacAngus

    Thank you for these insights Ms. Mohler.


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