Newark Filmmaker Traces African Roots In Award-Winning Documentary

Feb 6, 2020

Newark raised educator Nware Burge visits WBGO to discuss his documentary film D.N.A.-Using Genealogy To Change My (Slave) Last Name
Credit Ang Santos / WBGO

Ang Santos: Joining us on the WBGO Journal we have Nware Rahsaan Burge, he’s a Newark based film maker whose documentary D.N.A.-Using Genealogy To Change My (Slave) Last Name has been making the rounds at film festivals and screening February 13th at Kean University, thanks for joining us.

Nware Rahsaan Burge: Thank you.

AS:  Born in New Jersey raised in Newark to my understanding.

NRB: Born in Hackensack, New Jersey and moved to Newark when I was about five.  Raised in the Weequahic section.  I attended Maple Avenue School and then was gracious and lucky enough to attend the Newark Boys Chorus School in downtown Newark.  I eventually attended Arts High School.  I’m currently an adjunct professor at Kean University.  I also teach high school history and special education at LEAD Charter School in Newark, New Jersey.

AS: And now you’re a filmmaker.

NRB: D.N.A. talks about the premise of the surnames of Black people.  This subject matter is a very touchy topic.  Many Black people and people of African descent have had these discussions but there hasn’t been a real narrative or discourse nationwide or internationally, specifically around surnames in regard to the transatlantic slave trade.  Most people of African descent from the Caribbean and in the America’s carry these surnames, the last names, which are English and European.

AS: Where did this whole idea of making such a film come from, research?  A personal experience?

NRB:  It was seventh or eighth grade.  I was watching a news feature about the Burge twins.  There are two white girls, Heather and Heidi Burge and I’d never heard of them before but they had my last name. I scream into the kitchen, ‘Ma come here quick.  There’s two white girls on the television and they have my last name.’ My mother came into the room and told me they don’t have my name, that I have their name.  She said they could be a slave masters offspring or may have owned my family.  Then she discussed with me a brief history of slavery and how we got our names.  I think now being a history teacher and being a part of a broader scope in regards to African Study and scholarship I realize even as a sports fan, that when I see the names on the backs of a lot of athletes, it kind of in my mind represents the slave trade specifically.  I think that’s what African Americans and Caribbean blacks are dealing with when we carry the surname.  Many aren’t even aware, or they may be but never gave it a second thought.

AS: As far as your own tracking of your ancestry, what did you find, and will you consider changing your own name?

NRB:  Right now, that is the goal.  It’s not even just a name.  There’s a lot of debate over the accuracy of DNA.  I trust the accuracy of the company I’m using which is africanancestry.com.  They use a specific algorithm.  I trust that the results will give me my specific ethnic group.  I want to change my name specifically based on that ethnic group.

AS:  When this film screens in different places, demographics, age groups, what is the one thing you want people to get out of, D.N.A.-Using Genealogy To Change My (Slave) Last Name.

NRB:  Just the understanding of the effects of the transatlantic slave trade here in the Americas and how speaking English, carrying the names, and ideological perspectives are a part of that.  Understanding the history currently as opposed to something that is in the past or happened long ago.  We are constantly living history.  People who see it I think will like it.  It’s not a one-sided story.  When I’ve gotten responses, they like that I haven’t gone one specific way in making the film about my story or me wanting everyone to change their surname to an African name.  You see different viewpoints in this film.

***D.N.A.-Using Genealogy To Change My (Slave) Last Name has been accepted to and won awards at several film festivals including best documentary at the Black Star International Film Festival held in Ghana’s capital Accra.

For info on the Kean University screening click here.