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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Nelson follows subsequent appeals for reparations through the decades and into the genetic age: Farmer-Paellmann, in her claim, presented DNA evidence linking the plaintiffs’ ancestry to slave-trading regions in Africa — a tactic that failed to persuade federal judge Charles Norgle, who dismissed the case on the grounds that the genetic tests did not sufficiently establish a direct bloodline between the slaves and the plaintiffs. Nelson juxtaposes this decision with the plight of HR 40, a congressional bill introduced by John Conyers (D-MI) in 1989, calling for the creation of a commission to study the impact of slavery and its legacy on African-Americans, and to make recommendations for redress. Conyers has reintroduced HR 40 in every Congress since, but the bill has never made it to the floor.

“The past is never past until you talk about it,” Nelson says. “If we keep repressing it, it comes out in social movements in the street, like in Ferguson, or in legal action. But there’s this ongoing effort by people to try to force a conversation about this history.”

Nelson doesn’t think conversations are a cure-all, but she does call them “a necessary first step.” So why can’t we seem to take even a first step?

“Some of it might be due to the American mythology of ‘the melting pot,’” says Samuel K. Roberts, an associate professor of history and sociomedical sciences at Columbia and the director of Columbia’s Institute for Research in African-American Studies. The expression comes from the 1908 play The Melting Pot, in which British author Israel Zangwill refers to America as a crucible in which “the races of Europe are melting and reforming.” This trope, with its emphasis on the sacrificing immigrant, became, Roberts notes, “a way, during the Cold War, of saying, ‘We’re all Americans; let’s leave that other baggage behind.’ It says everyone came from somewhere else and worked hard, allowing the next generation to do better and become more American. 

“That is not a narrative in which African-Americans can participate. First, they weren’t voluntary immigrants, and second, post-slavery history was so thoroughly oppressive, exclusionary, and bloody that it doesn’t fit with the general narrative.

“Of course, European immigrant history was often bloody as well. There were violent repressions of labor unions and strikes. We don’t remember that, either: the narrative is, ‘You worked hard, and you made it out.’ So two histories are being forgotten. For the one, we’ve all heard the alternative: the immigrant as rugged individual. But for African-Americans, I’m not sure there is an alternative. The closest we have is this idea of a post-racial, colorblind society — not the color of your skin, but the content of your character. Which basically erases not just slavery but also the civil-rights movement: it takes that one phrase of Martin Luther King Jr. and twists it to say, ‘Race doesn’t matter, everyone’s got a fair shake, so stop complaining.’”

“It’s true that a lot has changed for minority communities,” Nelson says. “We’ve done a lot to make equality the law of the land. Yet this leads some of us to think that the problems are solved and there’s nothing more to be done. It’s interesting that genetic ancestry then enters this social climate that says, ‘Get over it.’ I think the persistence of the incantation this happened that genetic ancestry brings is really giving the lie to, and is talking back to, this discourse in American political life.”


For Roberts, the DNA work done at the African Burial Ground was interesting, because “it was political; it was about group identity. This was not individuals necessarily purchasing a claim to an identity; this is an identity that we have carried all along, and which has not always been recognized.” But the consumer tests raise political and even metaphysical questions.

“An interesting question has been, what part of our identity are we purchasing?” Roberts says. “What does this mean on a political level? For it’s such an individual thing. I’m not sure what it does for group identification, but there may be potential for interesting developments beyond just being able to say, ‘My people were Asante,’ or ‘My people were Ibo.’ In many ways, black Caribbean is an ethnicity or collection of linguistic-national ethnicities. Something similar might be said of many contemporary African ethnicities. And black African is an ethnicity. So what does this [genetic] purchase mean for contemporary ethnic, cultural, and political configurations?”

Nelson shared these concerns, and her inquiries led to some unexpected findings. Among them was that the financial transaction itself has meaning.

“With a consumer test, you are actually paying money to get your identity,” Nelson says, contrasting this with medical or legal situations where your DNA — your physical blueprint — is in others’ control. “People feel they have volition: I bought this. It should make sense for me. I should have a role in saying what it means.” Nelson found, too, that customers have no illusions about the test’s definitiveness. “People I talked to are very keen about the technical limitations, keen that the results are based on inferences,” she says. “But given that the alternative is to know nothing at all, it becomes meaningful to know even a little.”

And how do people feel when that certificate comes in the mail?

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