The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation After the Genome
Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub
[b]The unexpected story of how genetic testing is affecting race in America
We know DNA is a master key that unlocks medical and forensic secrets, but its genealogical life is both revelatory and endlessly fascinating. Tracing genealogy is now the second-most popular hobby amongst Americans, as well as the second-most visited online category. This billion-dollar industry has spawned popular television shows, websites, and Internet communities, and a booming heritage tourism circuit.
The tsunami of interest in genetic ancestry tracing from the African American community has been especially overwhelming. In The Social Life of DNA, Alondra Nelson takes us on an unprecedented journey into how the double helix has wound its way into the heart of the most urgent contemporary social issues around race.
For over a decade, Nelson has deeply studied this phenomenon. Artfully weaving together keenly observed interactions with root-seekers alongside illuminating historical details and revealing personal narrative, she shows that genetic genealogy is a new tool for addressing old and enduring issues. In The Social Life of DNA, she explains how these cutting-edge DNA-based techniques are being used in myriad ways, including grappling with the unfinished business of slavery: to foster reconciliation, to establish ties with African ancestral homelands, to rethink and sometimes alter citizenship, and to make legal claims for slavery reparations specifically based on ancestry.
Nelson incisively shows that DNA is a portal to the past that yields insight for the present and future, shining a light on social traumas and historical injustices that still resonate today. Science can be a crucial ally to activism to spur social change and transform twenty-first-century racial politics. But Nelson warns her readers to be discerning: for the social repair we seek can’t be found in even the most sophisticated science. Engrossing and highly original, The Social Life of DNA is a must-read for anyone interested in race, science, history and how our reckoning with the past may help us to chart a more just course for tomorrow.
From the Hardcover edition.
heritage tourism. African Ancestry’s DNA testing service is being employed as a basis of affiliation for networks forged between continental Africans and blacks abroad. These initiatives resemble the historical “back to Africa” and Pan-Africanist enterprises of Marcus Garvey and others but, importantly, they point as well in a new direction, toward a possible future of genetically derived global racial politics. However, there are also complications that accompany this dream of transnational
significant barriers faced by persons of African descent in the United States trying to trace their genealogical origins. They wanted the judge to understand how and why they had hit a “brick wall,” a term I had encountered frequently in African American genealogy circles. As anthropologists Faubion and Hamilton explain, the plaintiffs argued “that their case was hindered by the sheer lack of archival evidence concerning the enslaved ancestors and that the defendants had purposefully withheld
Dance for your homeland!’ ” In turn, Gertrudes would attend Marvin’s family reunion some months later. “Her presence was powerful,” Marvin recollected. “[She talked] about the importance of us coming together as a group of Africans. She expressed that we are all Africans and that Europeans try to divide us but now we must come together. And she also told our family some very interesting facts about the Mbundu people. And that was awesome, just for the family to hear about the people we descend
from . . . directly from an Mbundu person. It was very powerful. She had the full attention of the whole family. Everybody was just sitting there in awe of her presence. . . . It was uplifting and powerful just to hear her tell us something about our African roots.” DIASPORIC RESOURCES The social exchange carried out between Marvin and Gertrudes points to how genetic ancestry testing circulates as a “diasporic resource.”7 As anthropologist Jacqueline Nassy Brown describes, diasporic resources
of parsing that sliver of difference—one-tenth of a percent or less—between humans. And the difference that was deemed to matter was race. As sociologist Dorothy Roberts put it in a recent Human Genome Project postmortem, “reports of the demise of race as a biological category were premature.”27 Moreover, she harked back to the warnings of social scientists like Rothman and Duster, writing that “biological theories of race” are being resuscitated through the use of “cutting-edge genomic research”