Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Book: The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation After the Genome

This book by Alondra Nelson is only tangentially about genealogy and family history and sheds no light about how to use DNA to do research. It is about how our recent knowledge of the genome has fundamentally changed how we view facts about our ancestors.

The modern popularity of genealogy research began with Roots as a mini-series being televised in 1977. Before then, genealogy in the US had been mostly an upper-class pursuit, by white people. Of course, the LDS (Mormon) church had long been encouraging their members to document their ancestry -- also a mostly white project. Roots changed that, and now there are large numbers of black Americans looking for their ancestors both black and white, slave and free. And many want to go beyond the racialized labels assigned by the culture and the records and the African continent to find ancestral countries or tribal groups of origin.

Research both archaeological and "coroner's method" removal of graves in the "Negro Burial Ground" in the 90s exposed an old, racialized way of classifying the bones, in contrast to the new archaeological research which focused on using every clue found to place the person in the context of their lives in New Amsterdam, now lower Manhattan (near Tribeca). For instance, patterns of wear on the bones reveal the nature of the work these enslaved people did, and the African birth of some of them.

Once local people became aware of the excavation of graves, groups formed of probable descendants and others interested in preserving and studying and preserving the graveyard, which is now a National Monument. Another eventual outcome was the establishment by Rick Kittles, a brilliant scholar and activist, of African Ancestry, a company founded to help slave descendants find their African origins, and reconciliation with their history. His company offers both yDNA and mtDNA tests to help people connect with a country, a tribe.

There is a great deal more in this slim volume: the use of DNA to unite grandmothers with their missing grandchildren separated by the "Dirty War" in Argentina, forensic use of DNA to solve crimes of genocide, and eventually a very nuanced discussion of reparations politics in the USA.

This is not an easy read. It made me wonder why my genealogy society is all white. It made me ponder the history of how we've made use of our new knowledge of the genome, and what is ahead. It made me think about reconciliation with the past, and how we move forward once we know the truth.

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