Nelson Tests the Reconciliatory Power of DNA

By Ashley Serpa – Can DNA help African Americans reconstruct the past? Can genetic ancestry testing offer a path to personal and political reconciliation? Alondra Nelson addressed such questions at the Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies program’s annual Feminist Seminar, held on November 1, 2017. Nelson’s talk was entitled “The Social Life of DNA: Racial Reconciliation and Institutional Morality.”

For decades, genealogical societies have attempted to reconstruct African American family trees. More recently, genetic ancestry testing has provided an additional tool to that end—and it has quickly become a household concept. The desire to reconstruct the past has created a thriving market for genetic testing services. Individuals can now pay for such testing to learn their ethnic heritage. Meanwhile, in popular culture, reality TV shows featuring genetic testing are flourishing. 

Nelson, a professor of sociology at Columbia University and president of the Social Science Research Council, published The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation After the Genome in 2016. In her talk, she explained that her research in the field of genetic ancestry testing is based in part on anthropologist Arjun Appadurai’s The Social Life of Things (1988), which contends that “following things in motion [is how] we are able to illuminate their human and social contexts.”

According to Nelson, Appadurai gives us two ways to think about genetic ancestry testing. First, such testing is just one of many scientific domains, and people can think about multiple domains—genetics in genetic ancestry testing versus genetics in the criminal justice system, for example—at once. Second, it can help us think about “the multiple uses to which one type of genetic ancestry testing is put.”

Particularly illuminating, she said, is the case of Venture Smith. Smith was enslaved in the 1700s and wrote a narrative recounting his life. Recently, despite already possessing his extensive written records, Smith’s descendants allowed researchers to exhume his body in order to conduct genetic testing. One relative stated that scientific testing would help schoolchildren understand Smith’s history. Another argued that it would help “bring healing.” 

Remembrance and reconciliation 

For people descended from slaves, genetic ancestry testing can provide answers that might otherwise be lost. With slavery came violent dislocation—of families, of place, and of history. Nelson described how reconciliation projects using genetic ancestry testing help some African Americans heal centuries-old wounds. 

The “Sara” reconciliation project in South Carolina, for example, is a religious ceremony which commemorates and remembers those of Sierra Leonean background who perished in the Atlantic slave trade. It also brings together people who claim to be “DNA-Sierra Leonean,” many of whom used genetic ancestry testing to discover their heritage.

Reconciliation projects are deeply personal, but they can also be political. In 2002, Deadria Farmer-Paellmann advanced the case for reparations by suing multiple corporations that profited from ventures tied to slavery. In 2004, her case was dismissed by an Illinois judge, who stated that the plaintiffs could not prove “personal injury.” Farmer-Paellmann then used genetic ancestry testing to shore up her case. Though the testing showed that the plaintiffs were indeed descendants of slaves, the court once again rejected the case. Despite this failure, Farmer-Paellmann was able to bring reparations before the court, something that had not occurred for over a century.

Institutional morality 

Institutions of higher learning have also begun reconciliation projects to address their connection to slavery. The most famous case may be that of Georgetown University, which issued a report underscoring its 1838 sale of 272 enslaved Africans to Louisiana. A Georgetown alumus began the difficult task of finding the descendants of these slaves and—with the help of volunteers and by using genetic ancestry testing—succeeded. As a result, Georgetown now offers legacy admission to any descendant of the “GU 272.” Some descendants, however, claim this is insufficient, pointing out that many of them would be unable to afford tuition even if admitted.

What are the obligations of institutions when it comes to reconciling their history? Institutional morality is “not something static and baked in,” Nelson said, but rather a process. Institutions like Georgetown have chosen to express and act upon moral obligation to address the legacy of slavery. 

“As genetic ancestry testing is used to endeavor to resolve and reconcile controversies and mysteries about the past,” Nelson concluded, “institutional morality is a choice that institutions can make.”

Learn more about Alondra Nelson.