His phone buzzed to announce a message. It was 4 a.m. Jay Speights read the message once, and then again. He read it a third time. Then he woke his wife to tell her the news.
“I’m a prince,” he said. “A prince!”
Speights is a pastor from Rockville, Maryland. He could hardly believe the words he was speaking. Him? A prince? He grew up in New Jersey. He lives in an apartment. He doesn’t even own a car.
Speights spent many years trying to learn about his family history. Like many black Americans, his ancestors were slaves. He couldn’t find much written information. Then he decided to take a DNA test. Maybe he would learn something.
The test showed that Speights is a distant cousin of a man named Houanlokonon Deka. Deka’s ancestors were royalty in Benin. West Africa’s biggest slave port was also in that area.
Another company’s test showed that Speights has “royal DNA.”
Speights is probably related to a king who also captured and sold slaves. The more he learned, the more questions Speights had.
A few months later, a group from Benin visited Speights’ workplace. Speights talked about his DNA discovery. One of the men knew his family name, Deka.
“I know your king,” the man said. “Here is his phone number.”
When Speights first called, the king of Allada hung up on him. But the next time, the king gave the phone to his English-speaking wife. The queen asked what he wanted from them. His response was simple: Answers.
Speights learned that his ancestor was King Deka of Allada. He ruled from 1746 to 1765.
The queen wrote, “We will be delighted to welcome you to your home, dear Prince.”
Last January, Speights flew to Benin. He received a royal welcome. Hundreds of people danced and sang in his honor. He spent the week in “prince school.” He learned about the area. He met leaders. The king gave him several crowns. He put him on a throne. He called Speights a holy man and gave him white lace robes.
In Benin, a famous tree used to stand near the slave port. Before they left, men and women would walk around the tree nine times. They would say goodbye to their old lives and accept their new lives as slaves. It was called the “tree of forgetting.” Today, the tree is gone. But there is a historic sign on the spot.
While his new relatives watched, Speights walked around the sign nine times. But he walked in reverse. He thought about his father and grandfather. He thought about his ancestors who were slaves. He was angry, he said, and hurt. But when he finished his walk, he felt something else, too: healing.
Speights plans to go back to Benin every year. He wants to bring his wife and kids. He has accepted “princely duties.” He will help bring clean water and electricity to his relatives’ community.
“This was the most beautiful thing I have ever done,” he said. “I am the descendant of slaves. I am the descendant of a family who was involved in the slave trade. And I’m just starting to make sense of that.”
The king gave Speights a new name before he left Benin: Videkon Deka. It means “the child who came back.”
SOURCE: THE WASHINGTON POST