FEATURE

The Double-Edged Helix

To write about DNA ancestry testing, sociology professor Alondra Nelson immersed herself in the world of African-American genealogy. The story went deeper than she had imagined. 

by Paul Hond Published Winter 2015-16
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Photographs by Jörg Meyer

As she stood on the stage of the Hyatt Regency ballroom in downtown Atlanta in front of three hundred people attending the 2010 Africa Policy Forum, Alondra Nelson had a meta moment. Here she was, a sociologist and ethnographer, taking part in the phenomenon she was studying. But this went beyond participant observation — now she was the focal point, no longer the studier but the studied. Her DNA-test results were about to be divulged in a very public way.

The audience watched and waited. Though she and two other women were more or less the warm-up act for the sons of Marcus Garvey and Martin Luther King Jr. — which was surreal enough — Nelson knew what was expected of her. She had seen the reality shows. The audience needed a reaction. The reaction was part of the ritual. She became aware, as the seconds ticked down to the big reveal, of wanting to fulfill the expectations of the crowd.

In truth, taking the test — ordering the DNA kit, scraping the inside of her cheek with a swab, popping the swab in the mail, and, six weeks later, receiving a certificate proclaiming the region of Africa inhabited by her ancestors — had never been a priority for Nelson. She was more interested in learning why so many others were getting tested.

WHO ARE YOU?

“I don’t know anything about myself. I want to find out who I am, where I come from.” — rap superstar Nas, on PBS’s Finding Your Roots, with Henry Louis Gates Jr.

“There’s a general human desire for a sense of identity,” says Alondra Nelson. “And then we have specific desires.”

Nelson is the dean of social science at Columbia, where she has taught since 2009. Her new book, The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation after the Genome, which examines the uses of genetic ancestry testing, comes at a time when evidentiary technology is shaking up racial politics: cell-phone footage of police violence that belies official accounts; big data sets showing the crushing toll of mass incarceration on black families; and personal DNA analysis, which — as Nelson shows — could be the most potent tool of all.

It starts with the longing for self-knowledge. In her book, Nelson looks at African Ancestry, Inc., a DNA-testing company cofounded in 2003 by Rick Kittles, a geneticist now at the University of Arizona College of Medicine. As a black scientist, Nelson says, Kittles provides a sense of comfort for customers who yearn for a pre-slavery ethnic connection but who may be wary of submitting their DNA to a lab, given the horrific history of surgical and pharmaceutical experiments performed on African-Americans, as well as the pseudoscientific abuses of genetics — what Nelson calls “scientific racism.”

The test works like this: for a fee ($299 at African Ancestry), geneticists isolate your DNA and look for sets of genetic markers called haplotypes, which vary among populations. African Ancestry has a DNA database of hundreds of ethnic groups in Africa (among thousands), mainly from areas involved in the transatlantic slave trade. By comparing your matrilineal or patrilineal markers with those in the database, the company can make geographical and historical hypotheses about your African roots.

“They’re making lots of educated guesses,” Nelson says. “They’re guessing that the ethnic group in Africa whose DNA they’re testing today is the same group that was there hundreds or thousands of years ago. They’re making inferences about the genes and the history.”

Getting this information, Nelson says, lets African-Americans “make the move from race to ethnicity — from being African-American or black to being, say, Guinean-American. It’s complicated: ethnicity can be its own essentialist category” — “essentialism” is the idea that racial or ethnic groups possess timeless, inalterable qualities — “and I’m not saying that ethnicity is the Holy Grail. But it is certainly striking for groups that haven’t had that to get it. 

“So much of our society is organized around ethnicity. Think of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, or the Feast of San Gennaro. It’s not crazy for people to want to participate in society in that way.”

Nor is it surprising that people torn from their ancestral culture should feel, as one woman put it to Nelson, “this nagging need to know.” But what are the implications of personal genetic data for the community, for politics — for the very meaning of identity?

ORIGIN STORY: 1991

The backhoe’s blade lifted Manhattan’s earth, and the earth yielded its secrets.

Bones. Bones, in wooden boxes: bones connected to bones: a human skeleton, jaw stretched wide. Another skeleton, with coins over its eyes. A small skeleton: a child: too small for words. Another box, and another, twenty-four feet underground, while above, on the street, judges and cops and lawyers gabbed about Michael Jordan’s second MVP title and The Silence of the Lambs.

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