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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Roots also generated a mania for genealogy. Making a family tree became a widespread, imagination-quickening pursuit for hobbyists of all ages: interviewing relatives, visiting libraries, going through public records. Nowhere was this activity more prevalent — or more vexing — than among African-Americans, for whom even the most successful searches ultimately dissolved in the fog of slavery. Now, four decades and a few technological leaps later, DNA ancestry testing is a nearly three-billion-dollar industry, and TV shows like Finding Your Roots have brought nimble storytelling and celebrity intrigue to records-based genealogical inquiries, at whose limits DNA is climactically summoned to provide what the archives can’t: specific African identity.

Nelson, before taking her own DNA test, had always known a little about her ancestry. She was born in Bethesda, Maryland, in 1968. Her father, who was stationed in Vietnam at the time of her birth, grew up in New Orleans and was part of a westward postwar wave of the Great Migration in which thousands of black Southerners moved to California. Her mother was from Washington, DC, the daughter of a Jamaican immigrant father and a Philadelphia-born mother.

Nelson couldn’t go back much further than that.

Burial mounds at the monument.

WHO WERE THEY?

Burial 284 — Man between twenty-one and twenty-eight years. Burial 205 — Woman between eighteen and twenty years. Burial 99 — Child between six and ten years.

Nelson sits on a granite bench on Duane Street, two blocks north of City Hall. Here, on a one-third-acre parcel of land, surrounded by federal office towers, lies the African Burial Ground National Monument.

Grass. Trees. Burbling water. A twenty-four-foot-high edifice of black granite called the Ancestral Chamber, whose tapered interior symbolizes the stifling, disease-plagued transatlantic crossing — the Middle Passage — that killed some two million people. Enter the chamber and look up. The narrow triangular opening in the roof affords a precious sliver of sky.

Exit the chamber and step down onto a round patio of coffin-shaped tiles arranged in concentric circles, each engraved with brief descriptions of the persons whose bones were uprooted in the 1990s. Burial 128 — Infant under three months. Burial 332 — Man between forty-five and fifty-five years.

Who were they? 

Leslie M. Harris ’88CC, a professor of history at Emory University and the author of In the Shadow of Slavery: African Americans in New York City, 1626–1863, says they were mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, friends and neighbors. After 1626, when the Dutch West India Company shipped the first eleven bondsmen to New Amsterdam, slavery became a prominent feature of the settlement. Women worked as domestics, doing heavy household labor. Men worked on farms or at the docks, loading and unloading cargo. Skilled slaves assisted shoemakers and carpenters. Others laid cobblestone streets and built the city wall (at what is now Wall Street). Some of the remains uncovered in Lower Manhattan belonged to people who were literally worked to death; more than half belonged to children.

“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.”

“As soon as children were able to carry something, they were put to work,” Harris says. “Though child labor was prevalent generally, slave children were subject to longer hours, more work, and had no chance to become independent laborers.”

When the British ousted the Dutch in 1664, they brought with them a harsher brand of slavery. Individuals, not just companies, began buying slaves, says Harris. Slaveholders lived in constant fear of rebellion — arson was a mortal threat in the wood-beamed city — and signs of mutiny were met with public executions and family-rending relocations. Laws limited the number of black people who could gather in one place, including at funerals, like the ones held at the burial ground.

New York abolished slavery in 1827, long after the cemetery closed. On the western side of the African Burial Ground National Monument, a few feet from Nelson’s bench, seven burial mounds rise from the grass. This is where the remains of the excavated bodies were reinterred during a ceremony in 2003.

“You hear people say, ‘Slavery was generations ago, my family didn’t own slaves, I have nothing to do with it, it’s over, get over it,’” Nelson says. “So to have a monument like this, with coffin mounds and trees, really reminds us that it lives with us, and that there are people now who are the immediate descendants of a pernicious caste system in American society, the aftereffects of which we’re still dealing with every day.”

THE R-WORD

In 2002, while Nelson was finishing up her PhD at New York University and about to start a professorship at Yale, a young lawyer named Deadria Farmer-Paellmann walked into Brooklyn federal court with an audacious plan: she would seek financial damages for slavery by filing a class-action suit against three corporations, including the insurer Aetna, that had profited from the slave trade (records showed that Aetna had sold insurance to slave owners who wanted to indemnify their human property). Nelson chronicles the case in her book, placing it in the context of reparations efforts that date to the Civil War, when General William T. Sherman ordered the settlement of forty thousand newly freed African-Americans to a four-hundred-thousand-acre strip of Southern coastal land (the basis of “forty acres and a mule”) that had belonged to Confederate landowners — an order that, after Lincoln’s assassination, was revoked by President Andrew Johnson, resulting in forced evictions.

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