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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The African Burial Ground National Monument, Lower Manhattan.

Down in the pit, workers, in the midst of an archaeological survey of the site of a proposed federal building on Duane Street, had dug up what most historians had assumed, in May 1991, to have been long obliterated by centuries of New York City development. Old maps showed that the land now designated for a thirty-four-story tower and adjacent pavilion was once the Negros Buriel Ground, which received the dead from the 1690s to 1794. The cemetery, located outside a segment of the city wall running from present-day Chambers Street at Broadway to Foley Square, covered almost seven acres. Now from the earth the buried past rushed up into the racial vortex of a divided city governed by its first black mayor, David Dinkins. Black demonstrators, angered by the despoiling of hallowed ground and by the continued exhumation of the remains by technicians whose concerns were neither spiritual nor cultural, held vigil at the site and prevailed upon elected officials to stop the dig.

“You had a rare combination of African-American leaders: a mayor [Dinkins, now a professor of public affairs at Columbia], a state senator [David Paterson ’77CC], and a congressman [Gus Savage (D-IL)] who was chair of the House Subcommittee on Public Buildings and Grounds,” says Nelson. “And this constituency saying, ‘You’ve got to do something.’”

In July 1992, under political pressure, the General Services Administration, which controlled the site, halted excavation and handed over the forensic investigation of the largest slave cemetery ever discovered to a mostly black team of scientists from Howard University, led by anthropologist Michael Blakey.

“It was a perfect storm,” Nelson says. “You also had a generation of black scientists, trained in the 1970s, who could say, ‘We want to take over this project.’ This research team was unusually interdisciplinary: archaeologists, historians, anthropologists — and then they add geneticists. It was radical in its composition.”

Four hundred and nineteen skeletons were unearthed. The entire burial ground was thought to hold upward of twenty thousand people. Bone analysis showed wear and tear consistent with hard labor. Some graves contained objects — buttons, pipes, cowrie shells — that, along with dental analysis and emergent DNA testing, pointed to direct links to Africa. One casket lid was decorated with iron tacks in a heart-like shape that some scholars construed as a sankofa, a symbol from the language of the Akan people of present-day Ghana.

In 1995, Rick Kittles, a PhD student from George Washington University, was brought on to the burial-ground project. As a biologist, Kittles had had experience using cutting-edge techniques to sequence DNA. It was at the burial site that Kittles refined the methods that would lead to his commercial venture, African Ancestry.

Under Blakey, the team recovered a past that helped change our understanding of New York’s origins, of Northern slavery, and of the development of the country. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, one out of five people in New York was a slave. The only Colonial American city with a higher proportion was Charleston, South Carolina.

“We don’t want to overplay origin stories,” says Nelson, “but it’s very significant that the introduction of DNA analysis for probing history should happen at a site that’s about slavery, race, and the founding of the nation. And it becomes a moment for us, both as a community in New York City and as a nation, to say: this happened.”

FAMILY TREE: 1977

You knew something big was going on if the Nelson kids were up past nine on a school night. The routine was simple: go to school (in the Nelsons’ case, Catholic school in San Diego), come home, do your homework, eat dinner, wash your dishes, go to bed. Dad was in the Navy, so bedtime was rarely negotiable.

But in the winter of 1977, for eight consecutive nights, the four Nelson kids stayed up with their parents till eleven. They weren’t alone. Millions of Americans — record numbers, in fact — were also curled up on their sofas and chairs, eyes riveted to the screens of their Zeniths and Sylvanias. They were watching Roots.

Based on the book by Alex Haley, Roots traced the descendants of Kunta Kinte (played as a young man by nineteen-year-old LeVar Burton), who was captured in West Africa in the 1760s and shipped to America in chains. Here was an American tale that cut to the very chromosome of the body politic. Never had American society confronted the history of slavery in such a popular and synchronistic way. Black and white viewers alike encountered a reenactment of the wickedness and brutality of slavery with feelings of anger, horror, and heartbreak, and sweet satisfaction at scenes of defiance.

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