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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“They’re relieved that they’re finally getting an answer. Often they’re elated. Almost always they’re gratified. Sometimes they’re surprised. And then coincidence comes into play: people will say, ‘This result makes sense because it’s an African community of great cooks, and in my family line there are lots of great chefs.’ Or, ‘This makes sense because this community has lots of women potters, and in my family in Virginia women have been working with pottery for generations.’ So we have this effort to find the thing that works, the alignment that makes it all fit together. Even when the information is inconsistent, there is still an attempt to tell a story about it.

“At the heart of what I’m trying to say is that DNA testing is all about telling stories, and having something to tell a story around.”

But the biggest surprise for Nelson was how people assimilated their newly acquired heritage. She had assumed that they would run with the information and redefine themselves on a genetic basis. What happened was that people absorbed the scientific data into an already complex calculus of identity that included the usual markers: foodways, religion, education, geography, occupation, affiliations, and domestic roles. DNA ancestry did not supplant, Nelson found; it enhanced.

“Given that the alternative is to know nothing at all, it becomes meaningful to know even a little.”

“We put so much stock in science, so you’d think science trumps all,” Nelson says. “But identity is also an ongoing cultural process. It’s not just genetic.”

Nor is it just personal. Nelson reports that the search for one’s ethnic roots has a crucial collateral effect: people are reckoning with history itself.

“DNA ancestry is not just Grandma taking a test,” Nelson says. “These tests have social power. You get to say for yourself: this happened. And in a national community that doesn’t want to say this happened, that’s incredibly powerful.”

THE CIRCLE AND THE HEART

In September 2015, Nelson attended the centennial conference of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, founded by historian Carter G. Woodson. The event was held at the Sheraton hotel in downtown Atlanta.

Naturally, there were echoes of her trip to Atlanta five years earlier, when she’d stood in the Hyatt Regency ballroom and watched the crowd’s joyful outburst at the ancestry revelations of the two women who’d preceded her. That reaction only amplified her fear that her private skepticism about commercial genetic genealogy — “its technical limits and its symbolic excess,” and the chance it might “contribute to a world in which claims of citizenship are tied to practices of consumption” — would be visible to the spectators and “ruin the experience of genetic revelation and African redemption that they had come to enjoy.”

The man holding the microphone that day in 2010 was Rick Kittles, with whom Nelson, in the course of her research, had become professionally acquainted.

Kittles cut to the chase, announcing to the nervous but outwardly composed sociologist, and to the entire room, that she, Nelson, was related to the Bamileke people of Cameroon. Nelson, having a vaguely out-of-body sensation, smiled widely and said “Thank you,” and, slightly bewildered, looked out at the crowd, which, to her relief, broke into delighted applause. Nelson walked off the stage and into a sea of hugs and congratulations — an experience that she calls “very powerful, very emotional.”

Now, in 2015, five years after learning her likely ethnic roots (she doesn’t feel much different, though now the word “Cameroon” jumps out at her in the newspaper), Nelson was back in Atlanta for the history conference. As she was rushing through the lobby of the downtown Sheraton on her way to a panel, she saw a familiar-looking man.

He was standing there alone at the front of the lobby, and looked an awful lot like LeVar Burton. Was it LeVar Burton? Of all people? But what was he doing here?

Nelson went up to him. “Sorry to bother you,” she said. “My name’s Alondra Nelson. I just finished writing a book, and you appear in it, because it’s a lot about Roots.” She explained that The Social Life of DNA would be out in January 2016, in time for the fortieth anniversary of Alex Haley’s book.

“Oh,” Burton said, “we’re doing a TV remake of Roots, and I’m here to spread the word.”

Burton asked Nelson what she thought of the idea. Nelson told him that one reason she writes about the Roots phenomenon is that when she talks to younger people, they don’t understand the dimensions of that event — what it was like when there were pretty much three TV channels, and everyone you knew was watching the same thing for eight nights straight.

Burton nodded. He said that Roots needed to be made for a new generation. They chatted for another minute, and then Nelson, to affirm the reality, took out her phone and snapped a selfie of the two of them. Later she would say, “It’s what Oprah would call a ‘full-circle moment.’”

But there is another shape that comes to mind, one that Nelson writes about: the heart-like figure on the coffin lid at the African Burial Ground, thought to represent the Akan word sankofa. The shape is what you might get if the double helix of DNA was decoupled and the strands faced each other and curled their heads under and touched — a shape that is imprinted on the black granite slab of the Ancestral Chamber and adopted as the site’s official emblem.

A translation of sankofa appears in the visitors’ center of the African Burial Ground National Monument. The sign reads: LOOK TO THE PAST TO UNDERSTAND THE PRESENT. It’s an apt epitaph for the burial ground, and for the social life of DNA. 

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