Ancestry DNA in black political culture

As a child, Alondra Nelson became her family’s kin keeper. The oldest of four children she listened attentively at family gatherings, amassing a rich tapestry of stories and history.

Her fascination with genealogy grew and was nurtured by other African-Americans who also were tracing their family history. As a sociologist, she became committed to understanding people's desire to discover their ethnic roots -- a yearning that led in the early 2000s to the advent of an industry devoted to DNA ancestry testing.

Nelson, the dean of social science at Columbia University, will discuss how the science and technology of ancestry analysis has placed the double helix of DNA in the middle of social issues surrounding race as this year’s Robert Smalls lecturer on March 30 at the University of South Carolina.  

Titled “Reconciliation Projects: Ancestry and DNA in Black Political Culture,” her talk will take place at 7 p.m. in the School of Law auditorium and is offered by the African American Studies Program in the College of Arts and Sciences. It’s based on Nelson’s much talked about book, “The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations and Reconciliation after the Genome,” released in January by Beacon Press.

The book is the culmination of more than a decade of research. Nelson says healing is one of many themes to emerge from her ethnographic work.

“There’s a hope that genetic analysis of ancestry can shed light on the past and the past of racial slavery and reconcile what that means for all of us,” Nelson said at a recent National Archives event.

The implications for ancestry DNA testing are great. For African-Americans it can mean greater understanding of personal identity, extending beyond race to include ethnicity. For example, a person could now identify as Cameroon-American or Senegalese-American.

​“‘African American’ is a continental identity. One of the most powerful narratives about the United States is that we are all immigrants from somewhere else and we use hyphenated terms like Italian-American or German-American to demonstrate this,” Nelson says. “For the descendants of slaves, this kind of specificity is not available and so we say African-American--although Africa is a continent. Although there are technical limitations, genetic ancestry testing offers black Americans the possibility of having ethnic identities such as Ghanaian-American rather than racial or continental ones.”

Valinda Littlefield, director of African American Studies at Carolina, says it can enrich a person’s self-identity.

“The impact is that people can claim an identity they have not been able to claim,” says Valinda Littlefield, director of African American Studies at Carolina. “Most people want to know where they came from. That’s why the film ‘Roots’ and the current PBS series dealing with ancestry and remain popular. I don’t see an either/or with racial and ethnic identities. One can claim both.” 

For some people an ancestry DNA test may provide the final answer to a search. For others it may be just a beginning.

​“It can be both,” Nelson says. “Ancestry may suggest an answer to a longstanding question about identity or kinship​ that might be considered the end of one journey. But I found that the receipt of genetic ancestry results is also a beginning--a moment when this new information may take on different meanings.”

Nelson looks forward to talking to a South Carolina audience, since part of her research took place in the Palmetto State.

“I observed a ‘sara’ in which ‘DNA Sierra Leoneans​’, including the actor Isaiah Washington, who participated in a ceremony to remember and rest the souls of their ancestors who had traveled from contemporary Sierra Leone to the Carolinas during the Middle Passage,” Nelson says. “South Carolinians also participated. This experience brought home to me that for some the history of the racial slavery is not long ago and forgotten but still remains to be reckoned with and reconciled.”

Littlefield sees Nelson’s talk as a catalyst for greater conversation and understanding about identity.

“It’s my hope that the audience leaves with a desire to read the book and continue the dialogue about the importance of identity in confronting issues of the past and building bridges for a more just society,” Littlefield says.

The university’s African American Studies program established the Robert Smalls Lecture Series in 1997 to share the latest research and scholarship on African-American studies with the community. It has a rich history of speakers from national scholars John Hope Franklin and Darlene Clark Hine to South Carolina figures, including Rep. James Clyburn, Cleveland Sellers, Nikky Finney and Jonathan Green.

The annual lecture honors Robert Smalls, a slave, Civil War hero and congressman who had a significant impact on South Carolina with his contributions to political, education and economic reform.

“Alondra Nelson was a perfect choice by the African American Studies faculty as this year’s speaker. Her work promotes the Robert Smalls’ legacy of addressing social issues around race,” Littlefield says.

Learn more

For more information about Alondra Nelson, visit her website. For more information about the Robert Smalls Lecture, call 803-777-5940.

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