More African-Americans Are Learning Their Roots With Genetic Testing

Jan 24, 2016

Tracing your genealogy has become a popular hobby in the United States. More than 1 million people around the country have taken these tests. Shows like PBS's Finding Your Roots have shown the public how much information you can find out about your family tree with a simple DNA test.

It might be surprising that genetic sleuthing has become part of pop culture, but it probably isn't so shocking that this has become particularly important to one demographic. African-Americans of all different backgrounds were intentionally divorced from their ancestral stories by the slave trade and all that followed.

Author and Columbia sociology professor Alondra Nelson's new book The Social Life Of DNA looks at the interest in genetic ancestry tracing from the African-American community.

In an interview with NPR's Michel Martin, Nelson considers how this technology is changing the way many African-Americans see themselves and their place in the American story.

Interview highlights below contain some web-only answers. Click the audio link above to hear the whole interview.


Interview Highlights

On African-Americans' skepticism of medical testing

How does a community that had really been the object of scientific and medical scrutiny for generations — with really negative outcomes — come to see science and technology as a positive thing, or something that can be used for self-knowledge and liberation? That was a question for me as well.

And what I discovered over the course of this decade of research is that people find the stakes are really high, but they also find that the benefits are really high for communities. ...

Many people talk to me about living their whole lives wanting to know who they were, in the sense of who they were before the slave trade, who they were with regards to African ancestry. And to have this as a prevailing question for your whole life means that if you can find something that might help you answer that question, that it might be worth making the leap, despite that history.

On using the DNA technology for those seeking reparations for slavery

This is a moment where genetic technology is being used for an endeavor that many African-Americans had tried to accomplish for decades and generations: reparations. And they're using genetic technology which has not always historically been a friend to black communities if we think about the legacy of eugenics for example. And they're using this to try to get freedom and restitution for black people.

So it's an interesting case in that it's – to the best that I could discern – it's the first time that genetic ancestry testing is introduced in a civil case. ... It continues the long drumbeat for reparations in American society by generations of people – a drumbeat that comes again in 2014 with the publication of Ta-Nehesi Coates essay in The Atlantic. And because genetics is thought here to pose a new answer to a very old and longstanding question in black political culture.

On her own test results

Part of what I learned in the course of doing the research is that I am an outlier in this regard. Many of the people I spoke to – whether they were 25 or 65, had lived their whole lives wanting to know where in Africa their ancestors were from. ...

I was well aware of the ritual and performance of the reveal. So I thought to myself if I'm gonna do this I'm gonna do it in a big public way – in a reveal. ...

When the chief science officer of the African Ancestry Company announced my results as being an inference to the Bamileke people at Cameroon, things just sort of went from there. I didn't have to perform so much because everyone was just so happy and enthused about the results for me. It was a very emotional experience.

How she felt when learning about her heritage

I had no idea what the result was going to be. I found it informative and interesting. So it was a bit surreal, and it was fun.

But it was actually more meaningful to my mother, who right away – like so many of the people that I interviewed in my book — within I would say, within a couple of weeks my mother calls and says "I met a lady from Cameroon at church and she's Bamileke," and then she was at the dinner table – this was a few years ago. And this past Thanksgiving she was at our table with her husband and her son, she's part of our family now.

On the future of genetic testing

The industry is continuing to grow, it shows no signs of stemming. I think this will continue to happen as people will continue to make meaning and stories and relationships and new connections out of the evidence. I think that that space that you describe as on the one hand being knowledgeable about the technology or science at times being the enemy of black communities. On the other hand, being a friend. So friend or foe.

I think that's actually not a bad place to be. I think that's our contemporary modern condition for all of us.

You see it with the Black Lives Matter movement. The very technology that's used to surveil young activists, has also been turned against police authorities and the state to advance that political agenda.

So we're living in a moment that is the social life of DNA and is the social life of technology. It's very much the driver of who we are and what we do. I think having that critical, nuanced perspective that maybe we could say is particular to or comes out or has a particular inspiration in the experiences of black people who come to often science and technology with this critical perspective, is I think not a bad place to be in this historical moment.

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Transcript

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

If you are a fan of PBS, then you might have caught the latest season of "Finding Your Roots," hosted by Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. The series features celebrities like TV commentator Bill O'Reilly or superstar showrunner Shonda Rhimes digging deep into their family trees, often with the help of genetic testing. Now, it might be surprising that genetic sleuthing has become part of pop culture. But it probably isn't so shocking that this has become particularly important to African-Americans, who were intentionally divorced from their ancestral stories by the slave trade and all that followed. Now in a new book called "Social Life Of DNA," Alondra Nelson considers all the ways this technology is changing the way many African-Americans see themselves and their place in the American story. Nelson is a sociology professor and the dean of social sciences at Columbia University. And I started out by asking her how she got interested in DNA testing.

ALONDRA NELSON: As a very young girl, it became clear that I was going to be one of the kin-keepers of the family, which is a word that scholars use to talk about the person who keeps the family stories and keeps the family history. So when Aunts and Uncles would visit, you know, I would try to sit at the table as long as my parents would let me and hear stories and jot them down and these sorts of things. And then I was also interested when I started to hear stories about the emergence of what is now a multimillion-dollar industry of genetic ancestry testing, sort of what - you know, what would happened - what would be the impact of this kind of testing, particularly for African-Americans.

MARTIN: How widespread is this? How many people actually participate in this?

NELSON: It's a little bit difficult to get an accurate number because many of the companies are still privately-owned, so you don't get the full disclosure. But we do know that by 2014, up to a million people in the United States had taken these tests.

MARTIN: The connection to the African-American story, tell me about that because one might think given that sort of the terrible legacy, for example, of scientific experimentation on African-Americans in this country, you might think that they would be more skeptical of this kind of experience than other groups. But it sounds like that's not necessarily the case.

NELSON: Yes, that was a question for me as well. Many people talked to me about living their whole lives wanting to know who they were, you know, in a sense of who they were before the slave trade, who they were with regards to African ancestry. And to have this as a prevailing question for your whole life means that if you can find something that might help you answer that question that it might be worth making the leap despite that history.

MARTIN: Tell us though about actor Isaiah Washington. That's a person whose story you followed fairly closely. How did he - what's his story around his ancestry, and what effect did it have on him?

NELSON: Yes, so I do - I spend some time with Isaiah Washington in the course of doing my work. He gets genetic ancestry testing in 2004 and finds out on his maternal line that he's linked to Sierra Leone, and this becomes really important information for him. So Isaiah plays an interesting figure in the history of the impact of genetic ancestry testing because as a result of his tests, he would get dual citizenship in Sierra Leone. He's also done a great deal of philanthropy in Sierra Leone. He's built a school there and wants to continue to help build infrastructure in local communities there.

MARTIN: Well, you know, that raises a question though because he also has genetic ties to Angola, right...

NELSON: Yes.

MARTIN: ...I think through his father's line...

NELSON: Yes.

MARTIN: ...Or his father's side. So why did he pick Sierra Leone over Angola?

NELSON: So he - when I asked him this, he said he picked Sierra Leone because it was the mother's line. And he said women come first. So it was a kind of roundabout chivalry that led him to choose the mother's line rather than the father's line. But as you suggest, Isaiah's story is really illustrative of what I try to show in the book in part is that part of what genealogy is about trying to get accurate records and more accurate information and answers to questions that we might not be able to answer otherwise. But it's also about choices that people make about the lines they want to follow.

MARTIN: So I understand that - you know, I'm going to put you on the spot now - you did this, right?

NELSON: Yes.

MARTIN: You went through genetic testing yourself. Was it for the book, or you just were interested?

NELSON: It ended up being for the book. So when I start doing this research, I have to be honest and say part of me felt why would anybody do this? I mean, I'm an African-American woman. I've always been fairly convinced of my African heritage. You know, part of what I learned in the course of doing the research is that I am an outlier in this regard, that many of the people I spoke to, whether they were 25 or 65, had lived their whole lives wanting to know where in Africa their ancestors were from. At this stage in my research - this was in 2008 - I was, you know, well aware of the ritual and the performance of the reveal. So if I thought - you know, I thought to myself if I'm going to do this, I'm going to do it in a big, public way in a reveal. And so...

MARTIN: You're getting some of thought, huh? See, I thought you were going to go the other way. You were going to say oh, no, I'm not going to be part of that. I'm going to be all quiet about. But no, you're saying if I'm going to do it, I'm going big, huh?

NELSON: I went big. It was an event put on by the Leon Sullivan Foundation called the Africa Policy Forum. It took place in Atlanta in a large hotel ballroom. There were hundreds of people there. And it was quite a night, I have to tell you. You know, I was a little nervous about getting my results because I wasn't sure if I could - you know, unlike the television shows that we see, I wasn't sure if I could perform or - the reveal that the people in the audience wanted. But, you know, when the chief science officer of the African Ancestry company announced my results as being an inference to Bamileke people at Cameroon, things just sort of went from there. I didn't have to perform so much because everyone was just so happy and enthused and - about the results for me. But it was more - actually more meaningful, I have to say, to my mother, who right away - it's like so many of the people that I interviewed in my book - within I would say a couple weeks of me saying, you know, mom, on the maternal line we've been inferred to be related to the Bamileke of Cameroon. You know, within two weeks, my mother calls and says I met a lady from Cameroon at church and she's Bamileke, you know? And then she was at the dinner table, you know, a few years ago. And, you know, this past Thanksgiving, she was at our table with her husband and her son. She's part of our family now.

MARTIN: Cousins.

NELSON: DNA cousins.

MARTIN: DNA cousins - that's how it works.

NELSON: (Laughter).

MARTIN: Alondra Nelson is dean of social sciences and professor of sociology and gender studies at Columbia University. Her latest book is "The Social Life Of DNA: Race, Reparations And Reconciliation After The Genome." And she joined us from NPR's New York bureau. Professor, Nelson, thanks so much for speaking with us once again.

NELSON: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.