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.
“Meticulously detailed. Nelson adds another chapter to the somber history of injustice toward African-Americans, but it is one in which science is enriching lives by forging new identities and connections to ancestral homelands.”
“One of this generation’s most gifted scholars examines the unfolding mysteries of DNA sequencing and the limits and promises of genetic genealogy at the intersection of race, politics and identity. Alondra Nelson brilliantly guides us on a journey of discovery in this cautionary tale of the high-stakes efforts to reconcile our racial origins and to find redemption as a country. Eye-opening, provocative and deeply humane.”
—Isabel Wilkerson, author of The Warmth of Other Suns
“Alondra Nelson takes us into a complex and endlessly fascinating space where genetic ancestry testing meets racial politics. With her unique and wonderful gifts for research and insight into genetic science, ethnography and history, The Social Life of DNA comes at a moment when the questions it raises about race and social justice couldn’t be more pressing and urgent.”
—Rebecca Skloot, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
“Nelson explores this large, sprawling, fascinating subject with clarity, passion, rigor, and a keen eye for revealing detail. The Social Life of DNA will appeal to a broad readership interested in history, race, and science. Geneticists, sociologists, anthropologists, political scientists, and jurists will be stimulated by reading this book. It is a brilliant work.”
—Randall Kennedy, Michael R. Klein Professor at Harvard Law School and author of The Persistence of the Color Line
“Alondra Nelson tells a story for anyone interested in their own family, even their own memory. Using fresh genetics research and writing like an investigative reporter, Nelson clears up the mystery about our society’s rush to DNA.”
—Edward Ball, author of Slaves in the Family
“The Social Life of DNA is a brilliant ethnography of the recreational uses of DNA...Timely and original, this book offers a nuanced and engrossing negotiation between genetic truth and ‘truthiness.’”
—Patricia J. Williams, James L. Dohr Professor of Law at Columbia University and columnist for The Nation
“‘The double helix now lies at the center of some of the most significant issues of our time,’ Alondra Nelson writes in this valuable and illuminating book. Since 2003, she has been following the ways that DNA intertwines with race, and The Social Life of DNA is her clear-eyed, sharp, and closely observed account of the phenomenon. It couldn’t be more timely.”
—Jonathan Weiner, Maxwell M. Geffen Professor of Medical and Scientific Journalism at Columbia Journalism School
“Alondra Nelson’s account of how genetic data was transformed into contested political culture is a lucid as it is path-breaking. This exhilarating survey of how DNA became an agent in the politics of reparation and reconciliation has not only extended analysis of race and racism but created a new field of comparative research.”
—Paul Gilroy, professor of American and English literature, King’s College, London
Like many Americans, my family and I were riveted by the Roots minise- ries when it first aired in January 1977. I vividly recall sitting in front of the television with my mother, father, sister, and two brothers watching the story of Alex Haley’s family unfold in Technicolor.
My father, having just completed a tour at sea, reclined in an arm- chair, his feet up. My mother was on the sofa with one or two of us kids twined tightly around her. The other two of us were on the floor, alternately being admonished by our parents not to lie too close to the screen or told, courtesy of a sibling, to move out of the way. On Sunday evening, when it became apparent that we would view the first episode in its entirety—well past our bedtimes—we knew we were in uncharted territory.
The Roots occasion provided one of those unforgettable moments when a child sees her parents in a new light. Watching Roots, I also watched my parents, who were visibly stirred by Haley’s account. More than a few times during those eight evenings, my mother’s eyes welled with tears. She frequently shook her head and murmured “Uhm-uhm- uhm,” as I had heard Mary, her Philadelphia-born mother, do many times. An inherited response for emotions that defy language, perhaps. My father, who hailed from New Orleans, was characteristically stoic, but occasionally allowed a “That’s a damn shame” during an especially graphic or tragic scene. I realize now that while watching Roots, my parents similarly watched us, their children. They were worried and protective, interspersing their own commentary between scenes, hoping to ameliorate the dramatic effect of this painful history.
The Roots effect expanded beyond our family home, perched on the edge of a craggy San Diego canyon, to my grade school, nestled in a valley. I was called Kizzy and Kunta Kinte by my mostly blond classmates during first period at my Southern California private school. But during our lunch breaks, the teasing gave way to earnest but clumsy conversations. In the schoolyard, we tried to make sense of what Roots meant for our interracial friendships, for our discussions in Sister Nora’s American history class, and for our nation in the wake of its bicentennial. In our own ways, we each wondered, Who are we in relation to this history? Did this really happen? If so, how did we get from then to now—and where do we go from here?
Haley made his mark as a collaborator on The Autobiography of Malcolm X, the late activist’s influential account of his political transfomation published in 1965. This work emerged at the beginning of the black power era. Roots, published in 1976, and the television miniseries that was based on it, which premiered a year later, were culminating symbols of the era. This was the time of the Afro and the dashiki—of the “Black is beautiful” ethos. Between 1965 and 1977, black Americans turned to their African origins with intensity.
This interest in African origins and, in turn, genealogy was piqued in 1977. This watershed year also saw the publication of Black Genealogy by Charles L. Blockson, a primer of root-seeking attuned to the needs of African Americans, who faced especially steep hurdles in tracing ancestry. The Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society (AAHGS), the first national black organization dedicated to genealogy and family history, was also established in 1977. In the intervening decades, genealogy only grew in appeal for African Americans. In the last decade, with the decoding of the human genome, new tools were introduced that expanded the popularity of genealogy exponentially and, moreover, gave it multifaceted uses.
I began research for this book in 2003 after noting mention in the press of a DNA testing service that promised to help blacks trace their roots. I was captivated. At that time, genetic ancestry testing was in its infancy and traditional gatherings of genealogists were where the early adopters of these new root-seeking techniques could be found. I at- tended scores of these gatherings, large and small, throughout the country from Oakland, California, to Bedford, Massachusetts, and numerous places in between. My travels also took me to the United Kingdom. In these places, I encountered genealogists who had been using archives and oral history to reconstruct their family stories and who were willing to try the new genetic-ancestry-testing services that were just hitting the market.
I’ve also participated in events and conferences at which genetic genealogy testing was discussed, including meetings at churches, libraries, and universities, and conducted fieldwork and interviews in settings both virtual and concrete. I interacted with genetic genealogists and eventually, in a now well-established tradition of social science research called “participant observation,” I also became a root-seeker. I started conducting research on my own family’s history, which besides Pennsylvania and Louisiana traverses parts of the southern United States as well as the country of Jamaica, and became a card-carrying member of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society.
Building a bridge to Africa has inspired black American arts, letters, and politics for generations. Even if these speculative “roots” tests I read about never materialized, here a cutting-edge answer was being proposed to a central enigma of African America—a remedy that seemed ripped from the pages of a sci-fi novel. Speculation soon gave way to the news that a black geneticist named Rick A. Kittles had launched African Ancestry with his business partner, Gina Paige. Among the earliest direct-to-consumer testing companies in the United States, it was the first niche-marketed to people of African descent. As an ethnographer and historian of African America, with a special interest in science and technology—as befitting a child born from the union of a cryptographer and a mechanical technician—I knew that I had to join Kittles on this journey.
I used what social scientists call “snowball sampling” when conducting my interviews with root-seekers. In other words, I interviewed genealogists about their decision to use genetic ancestry testing and the effects of the results on their lives, and they, in turn, referred me to others. As I would discover, what was snowballing was not only the number of people in my interview network, but the surprising ways the test results were being put to use. That is, I was also being given an un- expected map of how genetic information was being used by individuals, communities, and institutions. Yes, personal and family information was gleaned. But in these conversations there was also growing mention of how broadly genetic ancestry testing was being used as the industry evolved. For over a decade, I’ve followed Kittles and African Ancestry, and in this time, have come to take a long view of genetic ancestry testing, a perspective that is more mosaic than the predictable, ritualized scenes of revelation and surprise we have become accustomed to witnessing on popular genealogy television shows.
As a wide-eyed girl watching Roots, and wondering about mine, I never could have dreamed a future where one day I’d have the surreal experience of having my genealogical results revealed to me before a crowd of African diaspora VIPs and civil rights leaders, and with a prominent actor, Isaiah Washington, as master of ceremonies. Although this experience elicited mixed emotions in me, I can personally attest that new branches on ancestral trees are the undeniable graft of genetic genealogy.
The Social Life of DNA unearths what else we try to accomplish with these tests, including political and legal uses. I’ve found this might include establishing ties with African ancestral homelands, transforming citizenship, recasting history, or making the case for reparations which, as we know, is an issue that is once again part of our national conversation. I describe these lesser-known but truly momentous uses of genetic ancestry testing as “reconciliation projects,” endeavors in which genetic analysis is placed at the center of social unification efforts. These may be legal attempts to financially reconcile formerly opposed parties like the descendants of enslaved persons and the current-day companies that profited from slavery, such as Aetna, JP Morgan Chase, and Wachovia. Reconciliation projects are also efforts to reunite formerly unified par- ties like blacks in the United States seeking to reconnect with lost kin and community in Africa. They may also be used to reestablish bio- graphical or historical information that has been lost to the march of time or to settle contentious issues. In short, these DNA-based techniques are offering a new tool to examine long-standing issues and these reconciliation projects reveal manifold and potentially transformative possibilities.
The Social Life of DNA tells the compelling, unexpected, and still unfolding story of how genetics came to rest at the center of our collective conversation about the troubled history of race in America. I hope you will join me on this foray into an extraordinary, uncharted arena of twenty-first-century racial politics.
ONE: Reconciliation Projects
TWO: Ground Work
THREE: Game Changer
FOUR: The Pursuit of African Ancestry
FIVE: Roots Revelations
SIX: Acts of Reparations
SEVEN: The Rosa Parks of the Reparations Litigation Movement
EIGHT: DNA Diasporas
NINE: Racial Politics After the Genome
- Aeon Magazine, video interview, Spring 2016
- NewsOne Now with Roland Martin, interview (pwd: TVOneN1N), 5/10/2016
- Rising Up with Sonali/KPFK Radio, interview, 4/15/2016
- Religion Dispatches, Q&A, 3/30/2016
- Quartz, piece, 3/27/2016
- C-SPAN/BooKTV, filmed book event, 3/24/2016
- New Scientist, review, 3/22/2016
- Alternet, adapted excerpt, 3/3/2016
- Blogtalkradio/Research at the National Archives and Beyond!, live interview, 2/25/2016
- SiriusXM/The Michelangelo Signorile Show, live interview, 2/18/2016
- Radio Curious, interview, 2/16/2016
- NY1/Inside City Hall, interview, 2/15/2016
- KERA/THINK, live interview, 1/26/2016
- KPCC News, adapted Q&A, 1/24/2016
- All Things Considered/NPR, interview, 1/24/2016
- Roughly Speaking, podcast interview, 1/20/2016
- Nature Magazine, review, 1/20/2016
- Marc Steiner Show, interview, 1/19/2016
- The Boston Globe, review, 1/19/2016
- Salon.com, excerpt, 1/10/2016
- Aeon Magazine, excerpt, 1/4/2016
- Columbia News (Columbia University), Q&A, 12/18/2015
- Columbia Magazine, cover story, 12/1/2015