The Social Life of DNA
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Welcome everyone and good afternoon.
I'm Lisa Lowe, I'm the director of The Center for the Humanities here at Tufts.
And with Kris Manjapra and Kamran Rastegar,
I convene the Mellon Sawyer Seminar in Comparative Global Humanities.
And we're very grateful to the deans and the President and
the Provost office, as well as to the Mellon Foundation for support, for
this year long series of discussions.
Our Mellon Sawyer Seminar innovates humanities research by bringing
together scholars in history, religion, literature, anthropology,
the arts, and now sociology, to consider what defines the human.
This very central and important category or figure for the humanities and
the human sciences.
We found it generative to compare discussions of the human from
various disciplines, to compare understandings
of the human species in relation to nature, animals and matter.
And also to rethink Western European ideas of the human in relation to definitions
of the human in other parts of the world.
Today, we're very honored to have a distinguished sociologist Alondra Nelson,
whose work on race, science, and
medicine brings a very unique perspective to these questions.
I would like now to turn to Provost David Harris
who is also a sociologist who will introduce Alondra Nelson.
>> Thanks, Lisa.
Let me start, I'll introduce Alondra but
let me first welcome all of you to this event, how excited I am.
And Alondra, given the weather outside it really tells you how committed these folks
are to being here, it's beautiful out there.
I'll also start with my version of amazon.com,
people like you who like to have talks like this might also like this talk
that's upcoming from one drop to 1%, the impact of DNA Ancestry Tests on
the World View of White Supremacists by John Donovan from UCLA, March 15th.
There's information over here on the table as well as information
on other CRSD events.
So Alondra Nelson, it's really a great pleasure,
I was really excited when Lisa told me that Alondra was gonna be coming to speak.
I know Aondra's work and I've had a chance to interact with Alondra in the past.
So I would offer a special welcome to Professor,
Dean, and soon to be president, Alondra Nelson.
And let me explain, you didn't miss something on your Washington Post,
New York Times updates about the other president, this is something else.
So let me tell you in a second.
So Alondra's professor of sociology at Columbia University,
where she's also about to complete a term as dean of the faculty there for
social sciences, the social science faculty.
And last week it was announced, I was so excited to see, that as on September she
will start as the president of the Social Science Research Council in New York.
To get this right, the SSRC is founded in 1923 and
the mission briefly reads as follows.
Most of you are probably familiar with the SSRC, but incase you're not,
it's an independent, international, non-profit organization founded in 1923,
governed by a board of directors.
It fosters innovative research, nurtures new generations of social scientists,
deepens how inquiry is practiced within and across disciplines, and
mobilizes necessary knowledge on important public issues.
I couldn't imagine, now a more important role for many things happening in society
right now, a more wonderful person to lead it than Alondra, so I'm really excited.
It exist and excited that you will be there leading it comes September.
Alondra is a undergraduate.
She was an undergraduate at UCSD where she met an incredibly young Lisa Lowe,
who was there as a faculty person already.
Later went on to NYU and has a PhD from NYU in American Studies.
Alondra has a unique body of work that combines social science and
science to explore critical issues of race and inequality.
Her publications include books, just published last year,
The Social Life of DNA which we'll hear more about a few moments, Race,
Reparations, and Reconciliation After the Genome.
Her previous book, Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and
the Fight Against Medical Discrimination.
There's other edited volumes as well as articles and chapters.
Alondra is a public intellectual in the best sense.
With the emphasis on both the public, and the intellectual,
which we don't always get both.
But we've got both in this package.
And then last, I'll just say at a personal level, I thank Alondra for
doing something that I haven't seen done before, in my four and a half years.
She has President Monaco and I are both here at this event, not as administrators
though we are very supportive of what's happening with the Mellon Seminars.
But it's academics, me for the sociologist of race and Tony as the geneticists.
So Alondra, thank you for doing this for all of us,
I'm looking forward to your talk and to the Q&A that follows.
>> Thank you.
>> [APPLAUSE] >> Lisa,
thank you for the invitation to be here, and for hosting me.
Can you here me, iIs the mic okay, high enough up?
And David, thank you for that lovely introduction, it's so nice to see you.
And they're really lucky to have you here, at Tufts.
And I harbor a fantasy that one day we will work together closely,
I would love that very much.
And greetings to all of you.
And greetings to President Monaco, thank you very much for
coming on a day that I think many of us might prefer to be outside.
So I will try to make this interesting enough to keep your attention as you think
about your colleagues and friends outside who are throwing frisbees in the lawn.
So I'm gonna tell you a bit about a book that came out last year
called the Social Life of DNA that started out as a project as I will say about
African American identity.
And think in particular about the potential for a transformation in
identity that was introduced with direct to consumer genetic testing,
a market that starts in the United States in about 2002.
And then I came to see that genetic ancestry testing really
also needed to be thought about as a social practice.
And that people are actually trying to accomplish things in the world that are in
part about identity but actually are part about other things far broader as well.
So I'm gonna show you some photographs,
most of which are taken by me in the course of my field work.
As I tell you the story about my journey and
thinking about what would become for me The Social Life of DNA.
So in 2002, I'm finishing my dissertation on the Black Panthers' health program,
which included a significant chapter and a half or so
about their work on genetic testing.
So the Black Panther Party, it begins what I think is the first national
kind of grassroots genetic testing and screening program in the United States.
They are able to do that because of a change in medical technology.
The introduction of a diagnostic test called sickledex that in part
allowed the activists not to have to use a gel electrophoresis machine
to tell if someone was negative or positive for a genetic disease.
And then allowed them to take them to parks and gymnasiums and
other places to do that work.
So I had already been thinking quite a lot about race and
genetics but obviously, a few decades earlier.
In 2002, I start to see a series of news articles, some of you will recall that
are suggesting that there is going to be this new industry,
that we now call Direct to Consumer Genetic Testing.
And that in part this industry might be appealing to African Americans,
that it might be a new kind of 21st century way to, for
African Americans to sort of accomplish the roots journey.
And aspiration that's created for those of us who are old enough to remember, or
actually there was a new iteration of roots last year actually, so
younger folks as well.
To be able to trace roots back to Africa, so an aspiration created for
some of us in 76 and 77.
When Haley's book and then mini series comes out.
But that was left unfulfilled for many because of the labor of doing genealogy.
So in 2002, I'm sort of looking for people who would be the early adopters and I
think one of the take aways I want you to have from the account I give you today is
that African Americans are among the early adopters of direct to consumer technology.
And so I was looking for a population of folks that I could give at that time,
a very simplistic survey protocol of questions that I threw away
about a year into the project.
But I had a very set series of questions about identity.
And in 2002, if you wanted to find today, perhaps many of you in this room
have been engaged in direct to consumer ancestry testing or
some kind of genetic analysis either in the research project or as a consumer.
In 2002, it was quite difficult to find people who were interested in these tests.
And I found myself interested in the emergence of genetic genealogy,
but having to go to conventional genealogy societies in order to find folks.
So, this is a photograph I took in 2006.
This is from the national meeting of the Afro-American Historical and
Genealogical Society which took place actually in Massachusetts, and
this is a meeting at a time when it was not a foregone conclusion that this
industry was gonna take off.
And so you had purveyors of these early companies going
to conventional genealogy societies or organizations, associations and
trying to convince conventional genealogists that genetics could be
useful for their work which is almost hard to imagine here in 2017.
Such that, this photograph was taken at a DNA 101 session
which is trying to tell conventional genealogists how DNA might be useful.
This photograph also suggests to you who were my early sample.
The early people that I interviewed.
So, they tended to be as genealogists are.
People in their fifties or older.
They disproportionately tend to be women.
In the case of this African American genealogical society,
they were also what we might think about as club women.
So they were highly educated, most of them had at least masters degrees.
Many of them had, had municipal jobs or job that allowed one to retire at 50
years old and still have leisure time and income that you would need to go to
the archives all over the United States and globally to do your research.
These women pictured here and it was mostly women as I suggested, and
the social work literature would be called Ken keepers.
These are the people in your family who collect the information about the family.
So if you think about the person that you can call and within ten minutes,
be caught up on all of your relatives.
They'll know about the babies, the marriages, the families.
So in the social work leadership, that is the Ken keeper and
genealogists we might think of it as the Ken keepers.
The ones who are often from very early interested in holding on to
family stories, records and the like.
So a woman here holding the double helix, this is from that same session.
The individuals here are holding up bits of construction paper that represent
the nitrogen base that's found in the nucleotides that comprise DNA.
So, this was quite literally a DNA 101 like building blocks of DNA session.
So, I spent a lot of time at meetings like this both local and national meetings.
I also in my travels in particularly in the early years of my research found
myself in places like this,
which is the interior of the Latter-day Saints church in Harlem.
So those of you who have been know Harlem, know that there is a kind of peculiar
building on the corner of 128th in Lenox Avenue with a little white steeple.
This is the interior of it.
When I first started doing my research,
this temple had just only been open a few years and
they were starting to do a series of black history month event and the events were
organised around the kind of sentiments shared both by African Americans.
And shared in Mormon cosmology which is that you can't know where you're going,
unless you know where you've been.
The sort of centrality of the past to understanding what the future it.
So, this is from one of those events.
The woman pictured there is a woman named Sharon Wilkens who was the president of
the Harlem chapter of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society.
I became a member of in the course of doing my research.
So as I said, I was barely, the ink was drying on my dissertation.
I was still a relatively young research and I had my interview questions, and
my clipboard, and I was going out into the world, and
I was asking people things about their identity.
What is it happened?
How do you feel when someone tells you that you're inferred to be related to
the Ebo people?
Do you feel differently?
What is that like?
So this also, unlike my first book was a project in which the field
of the science was changing, the industry was changing.
And people were becoming consumers quickly,
even as I was trying to do the research.
So unlike my Black Panther project which comes out as a monograph, sort of and
is based upon a lot of historical work as well as interviews.
I'm actually publishing as I'm doing this research and some of my early works,
and this is from the Social Studies of Science were about this identity question.
And about in particular what it gave me was an interesting two sets of people to
compare which I do in this article which was about people who had ways of thinking
about their genealogy from conventional genealogical records, some national or
vital records and the like and those who are using genetic testing.
And I was able to look at those who were transitioning into genetic testing and
how they negotiated these two different ways of thinking about
kinship in the family, and also to compare those to
people who were introduced to genealogy through this new genetic industry.
So a lot of what I found early on was consistent with some accounts that you
might be familiar with from what is now a parallel cottage industry and
direct to consumer genealogy reality television shows including
Who Do You Think You Are, which comes to us from the UK.
And African American Lives which is produced and hosted by Skip Gates, and
has had other iterations tracing your roots, and the like.
So these shows show you revelations, surprise, emotion.
Often based on the genetic ancestry results, but
sometimes on the conventional genealogy.
But I came to find in the course of doing my research that this is the story that
you get, if you talk to people or encounter them once.
If you do a graphic process or an editor process in which you're going back to
talk to people again and again and again,
you come to see what the tests mean in people's lives besides the identity piece.
So, I'm gonna tell you a story of how I came to think about this.
So, I'm taking you back to the 18th century.
This is the tombstone of a formerly enslaved man named
Venture Smith who died in 1805.
I came to know about him.
I was a faculty member at Yale at the time and he was a native, well, not a native.
He died and he used to have him Connecticut just up the road from
And every year in the fall in September,
there is the Venture Smith Day in which people come to the green of
a congregational church in Eastern Connecticut and celebrate his life.
He's a very significant historical figure in part,
because he writes a slave narrative and I'll tell you a little bit more about.
That tells about his life and also,
because he would succeed in buying himself out of slavery.
Buying members of his family out of slavery and by the time he passed away was
actually a quite successful business man in Connecticut.
So he's a fascinating figure, because members of his family know each other.
They know each other in part.
Because as an important historical figure of the state genealogist and
the state historian of Connecticut are involved in keeping and
tracking down records about his life, his family and
this is from a wreath laying that they do every year at his graveside.
They took in my field work.
And he's important to us because he leaves behind this slave narrative of
The Life and Adventures of Venture, A Native of Africa.
It's one of the very few slave narratives that we have
that go back to the the continent of Africa.
So Venture Smith actually tells us in his own words,
accounting for the amanuensis, that
we know from the abolition period would have been helping him to tell his story.
And to craft it in a way that was sympathetic to the cause of
slavery abolition, of course.
So he tells us about the experience of being captured.
He tells us about life in his village, the names of his family.
He tells us that he's carried on a ship that's helmed by a captain
Who would become notorious a few years later as the captain of the Zong ship
in which enslaved Africans were thrown overboard to save insurance money, and
it became a notorious court case.
So we know a lot about Venture Smith, his descendants know who they are in part
through the work of these state genealogists and state historians.
We actually know, and this has been verified by historians and linguists and
the others, quite a lot about Venture Smith.
Again, accounting for
this filter of the person who wrote with him, about his life in his own words.
Including his pre-middle passage identity,
which historians suggest would have been in contemporary Guinea.
So I'm following this family and this story, and interviewing and
spending time with his descendants, at this annual Venture Smith day.
And then I learn, from a member of the family, that they've given permission to
a group of researchers from the University of Connecticut, and
from the University of Hull in the UK to exhume Ventre Smith's body in order to do
genetic analysis on his remains.
So it becomes a curious, this moment for me becomes curious.
It becomes a moment when I ask a question about what do we think genetics does here?
If we know through conventional genealogy and
historical records as much as we can about him.
And indeed if we know through his own words, sort of, who he was, the members
of his family, where he came from, and what the experience felt like for him.
Both as an enslaved person and later as a free person through his own doing.
So then I begin to pose the question what is genetic ancestry doing and
what is DNA analysis doing, besides identity, what is the other work of it?
So I think one answer to that question is well they know a lot about him but
maybe they don't know his haplotype group.
I mean there is a kind of a different kind of data that might be potentially derived
from doing In this kind of excavation work that's completely reasonable.
But I also thought there might be deeper answers still.
And so I asked his family members there were two eighth
generation descendants of Venture Smith who would come on Venture Smith day.
Why they allowed these UConn historians and University of Hull historians and
geneticists and archaeologists to exhume the body and do this research.
When they know more about their descendant, who
died in the early 19th century, than most of us could possibly ever hope to know.
I mean in fact we know more about him than we do about some free men,
men of European decent of this time period.
So one of his ancestors says to me, one of his descendants, rather,
says to me, we hope it will help school children.
And there was this sort of impulse that there would be a kind of educational
And then another of his descendants, the women pictured
here named Florence Warmslee, says, we hope it will bring healing.
So it was in hearing accounts like this about what we
think genetics can do in the world that I came to start to think about and
kind of threw away my interview protocol.
And came to think about the other things that genetic ancestry testing is doing in
the world and genetic analysis is doing in the world.
And I particularly started to not just ask questions about identity,
but to follow the tests around in the kind of social sphere.
So the anthropologist Arjun Appadurai offers for us in his edited collection
from 1988, a seminal opening essay called, the social life of things.
So this article is really about understanding social significance and
social meaning through the circulation of material culture in the world.
And he tells us that it's by following the social life of things, things in motion,
that we're able to illuminate their human and social context.
So I decided about three years into my project to follow the test around and
think about the ways and
the places where genetic analysis travels in our communities and in our society.
As I'll share in the rest of the work, I particularly study this company and
this geneticist for reasons that I'll explain later.
This is an African American geneticist, one of the few named
Rick Kittles who in the profession is a specialist in prostate genetic.
But is also a pioneering figure in the direct to consumer genetics market.
He starts his company African Ancestry in 2004 when the industry in
the United States is only about two years old.
There were four companies that were around when he began, and of those companies
only two are remaining today, African Ancestry and Family Tree DNA.
So this is also another story about African American early adoption that I
want to leave you with and leave you to think about.
That's in part made possible because of Rick Kittles' particular
triangulating kind of role in this industry.
So it's very much the case that people that I talk to referenced scientific
racism, sort of tragic and sometimes malicious histories of race and
science in the world that had happened previously.
As a reason why the might be dissuaded, or not interested,
in being involved in genetic ancestry testing.
But Rick Kittles, and his presentations, at some of these genealogy conventions and
meetings, and other places that I encountered him
was able to talk about that history and say that he understood it.
And also say that he was committed to having a company and
a practice that wouldn't be involved in those kinds of activities.
So he became, in the sociological literature we have what's a cultural
broker, who sort of mediates often between different communities.
I suggest that Rick Kittles is a bio-cultural broker who, through his
expertise as a geneticist and, at the same time, his parallel understanding of
the history of African Americans vis-a-vis medical experimentation and
genetic science, is able to be a trustworthy figure in this industry.
So going back to Miss Warmslee's invocation of healing,
I came to think about the social practice of genetic ancestry testing as
being something that we might call a reconciliation project.
And for me reconciliation projects are sort of endeavors or social practices or
sites in which different forms of genetic analysis sometimes direct to consumer
genetics and sometimes other types are put to the task of resolving controversies and
answering questions about the past.
So beginning in the 1980s we begin to see these uses of
various forms of genetic analysis for sheer humanitarian purposes.
Including the association of the Grandmothers of the May Plaza and
And I'll tell you a little bit about that story.
This is one of my personal heroes in the dark shirt, holding up a test tube,
Mary-Claire King, who is a University of Washington geneticist who might be
known to some of you for her work and, the BRCA cancer genetic genes.
And also for her quite heroic work against myriad genetics and
the sort of patenting of tests that could be helpful for saving people's lives.
So earlier in her career, she had taught English and
had taught science in Latin American.
And was dispatched by Luigi Kabbalah Forsa,
Forsa who was a Stanford geneticist to go and deal with these women who had
contacted him about trying to find their disappeared grandchildren.
Who had been disappeared by the junta state and were also often placed in
the families of People who were allied with this authoritarian regime.
So she comes up initially with the idea to use HLA blood antigens, and
then within a year or so, starts to use early genetic analysis to
match these grandparents to their grandchildren, and ultimately this becomes
a state project of using genetic analysis to restore these families.
So this is different from African-Americans using genetic analysis
to restore or understand their pre-middle passage identities but
I want you to understand genetic ancestry testing and its social and
political uses, as being engaged in this work of reconciliation,
of sort of using genetics to think about and to answer questions about the past.
Be those about what happens to families in an authoritarian regime, or
in my particular case, I'm interested in thinking about how genetics is turned
to as a way to resolve injuries that are produced by racial slavery, and the like.
So we begin to see the emergence of this in the United States, through the use
of early genetics, to analyze historical controversy.
So in the UK, we have folks like the University of Oxford's Bryan Sykes,
who is doing research on whether or not the remains of a certain person
are the Tsarina, the Russian Tsarina, and other kinds of historical feats of fancy.
In the United States, some of the early cases that we find DNA being used to solve
mysteries or to answer questions, really circulate around the slave trade,
and around the legacy of racial slavery in the United States.
So this is a very important paper from 1998, that you
might be familiar with from Nature, that concludes in its title that Jefferson
fathered Slave/child if referring to Sally Hemings.
There is a rejoinder to this paper that's using white chromosome analysis,
the patrolineage analysis to suggest that the descendants of Sally Hemings
share white chromosome with the male descendants of Thomas Jefferson.
There's a later rejoinder in this paper that suggest that it could have been other
male descendants of Jefferson and not Jefferson himself, but we know from
Annette Gordon-Reed's important work that the preponderance of the historical
evidence alongside with the genetic evidence suggests that this was the case.
So I want to tell you a little bit about the reconciliation projects that I'll
follow for you in the course of my talk today.
And they all involve, they originate one might say,
out of the African burial ground project, about which I'll say something.
And from Rick Kittle's work on that project, as a graduate student,
to the formation of his company African Ancestry.
That he founds in 2004 with his business partner Gina Page,
who was a Stanford educated economist.
And who offer for us, and again this is an early days company, so they're using
early techniques, Y chromosome analysis which traces patrilineage.
And mitochondrial DNA analysis, which traces matrilineage.
The Y chromosome, which travels from men to sons only, and
the matrilineage travels from mothers to children.
So we might think about,
if you think about sort of one's genealogy of being an upside down pie and
sort of this center here being the ego, the Y chromosome traces this line,
mitochondria DNA this line, but none of this stuff in the middle is filled it.
So it's quite informative, for example,
the Y chromosome in particular given the way in the United States,
the way that we name and pass on family and inheritance.
So a Y chromosome that also has a male last name can be quite informative.
And has matrilineages that passes from mothers to children,
can be informative, as well.
And geneticists estimate that these two lines together give you just over 2% of
one's total DNA, but you're missing all the folks in between.
So there's some limitations and some advantages to using this.
So what do genetic markers tell us?
I mean really nothing, the companies make them say things to us and
they make them say different things.
So those of you who are more familiar with a more recent company, 23andMe and
have used that test, know that they give you ancestry painting,
they give you percentages of different proportions of your ancestry.
The African ancestry company provides among other things some list of
generative markers and what they call a certificate of ancestry.
That offers an inference of often an ethnic group and a nation state on
the continent of Africa assuming that ones made of mitochondrial DNA or
white DNA test to Africa, in other cases, it would be to Europe or elsewhere.
So I wanted to show you this afternoon how this test and
this company's test circulate through a series of reconciliation projects.
As I said that began at the African burial ground, which is the first photograph
there, so a ceremony at the African burial ground, turn to identity projects.
This is another photograph from my field work.
There's an African-American Genealogist there,
dressed in colonial period costume with geneticist named Jeanie Wilson who teaches
at UMass Lowell who was doing that DNA 101 presentation that I've mentioned to you.
I'll tell you how this company's test travel through historic class action suit
reparations for slavery by 2004.
And also, in at least one case lead to dual citizenship on the African Continent,
based on a mitochondrial DNA finding; in this case, the actor Isaiah Washington.
So first, let me go back to the African burial ground to show us how we get
to the possibility of this moment.
So some of you will remember in Lower Manhattan in 1991, a historic
African burial ground is uncovered in the course of some construction work.
So the General Services Administration, the GSA,
was planning to put up a federal building in lower Manhattan.
There had been some preliminary historical research that suggested the site might
be near or might abut a former cemetery, but they weren't sure,
and it wasn't conclusive, and so they started digging anyways.
As an aside, if someone from Southern California,
I always found this part of the story fascinating because you can't even
put a shovel in your own backyard in Southern California without
having an indigenous observer, sort of cultural resource management person.
You have to have a whole team to even try to put your garden in your backyard so
this part about New York always is fascinating to me.
So what begins as a construction site quickly becomes an excavation site,
an excavation site that is first
put under the responsibility of the Metropolitan Forensic Anthropology Team at
Lehman College which is part of the City University of New York Network.
These are mostly forensic anthropologist and
forensic physical anthropologists who do a kinda CSI Science.
These are not academic archaeologists or
academic physical anthropologists who are particularly invested in
the interpretive work of contemporary anthropology.
And moreover, they became sort of site of a lots of controversy.
So there was several layers of controversy at this site, some of you may recall.
One was that there were a group of activists who just wanted the remains
to be covered up immediately.
And the souls of those buried there to be rested and not that the thought
of even doing any kinda excavation there did in a service to those souls.
And there was another group that thought that the research potential was
particularly quite profound and that some research should be done but
perhaps by not by this team who were not adept and
the more we find methods of conservation and analysis.
So the Lehman's team comes under fire for its methodology.
This is Michael Blakey, an African American physical anthropologist
who was then at the time at Howard University, and
who's now at the College of William and Mary and the Mellon chair.
He charged that the Lehman's College's methodology reduced the individuals in
the burials to quote, unquote, narrow typologies, and thinly descriptive
variables that disassociated them from their particular culture or history.
He would later become the research director for this project.
There was also lots of social movement activity on the ground by a group of
people who called themselves descendants of the African Burial Ground.
We didn't know who these remains belonged to, so there was no way we could have had
any kind of verified tie to these were the descendants.
This was a symbolic claim that was being made.
A symbolic claim that was sort of using the posture of a Native American group
such that this could be the group or
would be the group, who had a say in the disposition of these remains.
So, what's interesting here is that what the Howard researchers, Blakey and
the Howard researchers were proposing was not just purely sort of interpreted,
and cultural and historical.
They were actually proposing to do some pretty hard science.
And the activists understood that the science could be done in a way that led
to what they call the biological racing of their ancestors remains.
So, in a kind of forensic way that said, this is a femur, we think it's a Negroid,
or an African, or a black femur, it's this many centimeters, this is its weight.
Or the research could be done in such a way that said,
this burial is found shrouded, or not shrouded,
which might suggest certain kinds of religious burial ways.
There were cowry shells that were also found with the remains.
This wasn't a part of the grave site that was gender-segregated.
But there were other stories and things that we could know that would be fruitful
for our understanding of the middle passage.
An African, a colonial African history that could only be accomplished
through a laboratory method that did not amount to the biological racing
as they would say of their ancestors remains.
So they were really splitting the difference in walking a fine
line here, right?
They were saying that you could do in this case, craniometry and
also genetic analysis, that would not reduce their ancestors' skin of
social identity to skin color alone.
So, they were symbolically aided in this work by the sort of specter of
Montague Cobb, an African American physical anthropologist at
Howard University for whom the current lab there is named.
Who was also an anti-racist scientist.
He was a member of the NAACP.
He wrote a regular column called, The Integration Battlefront, in which he
railed against scientific racism in anthropology, in genetics and elsewhere.
And understood that there could be scientific research and
endeavor that did not have to be racist.
So the African burial ground research study was using,
after George Armilegos, the late Emory physical anthropologist,
who's trained generations of students in this method.
An approach that was multidisciplinary, that would use history, and archeology,
and dental morphology, and phenotypic traits, but also craniometry,
which is often the sort of exhibit a of race science and molecular genetics.
Again, with the understanding that it wasn't the craniometry or
the molecular genetics per se that was racist, right?
There were frames that could be used that were not racist, and
particularly if you're using them in concert with other ways of thinking
about the burial remains and the burial site.
And indeed, in 1998, Michael Blakey, the research director, because
the remains would be removed from Lehman College and brought to Howard University.
With Michael Blakey running the research project,
said that the scientific research not only was potentially anti-racist,
but that it was another dimension in a long standing human rights struggle that
would help to restore the origins and identities of those that were deliberately
lost during the middle passage and the dehumanization of Africans as slaves.
So using the work of the African historian Michael Blakey, we might say that,
what genetic ancestry testing, or genetic analysis as this site would promise, was
a transition from a socially stratified ethnically based identity directly tied to
a specific land to an an identity predicated on the concept of race.
So for Michael Gomez, the middle passage, right, is a reduction of all of the food
ways, the languages, the religions that constitute the people that were brought,
and slaved, and distributed in the Americas, and else where.
And also the reduction of all of this diversity to caste and
to the concept of race.
And he offers, so
we can think that one of the things that genetic ancestry testing potentially
offers for African Americans are what the Harvard sociologist Mary Waters called
ethnic options, which had previously been constrained for African Americans.
African hyphen American.
Africa is a continent but we use it in the United States in
parallel with Irish American, Scottish American, which are nation states, right?
There's a lack of specificity.
There's a lack of ethnic options for
African Americans, in part, because of this middle passage journey.
So what's important about this story at the middle of the African burial ground,
before I move on, is that one of the young researchers on this
team was the geneticist Rick Kiddles, who was completing his PhD in genetics,
or molecular biology at George Washington University.
And it was him who brought the then very new ancient DNA techniques to
the research site, and allowed them to even begin to imagine that they could do
molecular genetics analysis in the early 1990s on remains, in this case,
that were, in some cases, very much degraded.
So, Kiddles at the site creates a reference database based on publicly
available DNA, and tissue samples, that have identifying
marks from various nations, states, and ethnic groups on the continent of Africa.
And he tries to find what he called macro-ethnic affiliations of the remains
that they were able to get enough DNA samples from,
and to match these samples against this reference database, right?
So, this is the methodology of direct-to-consumer genetics,
and indeed of human population genetics from which it derives.
So what happens with these tests?
They do some identity work as I suggest, but
they also do some kind of spiritual work as well, and I am going to show,
tell you now a few short stories about where this test travels.
This is again, the actor Isaiah Washington, he will be familiar to
some of you depending on your TV viewing habits from Grey's Anatomy,
where he got in trouble for making a negative remark against a co-worker and
was tossed off the show on his ear.
He's also been in some sci fi shows on the CW and the like in recent years.
So, Isaiah Washington, in 2004, when he still on Grey's Anatomy,
participates in a Pan-African film festival in Los Angeles.
And as part of his sort of swag bag from that festival, he receives an African
ancestry testing kit to do a mitochondrial DNA test and a Y chromosome DNA test.
He ends up doing one test only, the mitochondrial DNA,
that infers that he is related to the Temne and Mende people of Sierra Leone.
And from that point forward he comes to refer to himself many times
invariously as a DNA Sierra Leonian.
So in 2008, I received an invitation to a ceremony called The Sara.
That was going to be convened by a group of DNA Sierra Leonians
including Isaiah who I'd met in the course of doing my research.
As well as other people who they claim to Sierra Leone.
There was only about 30 people there.
The woman in purple comes from a family with a surname Polite
which is one of the few families that we can trace back to
Africa through the middle passage using slave ship manifest.
And she's the descendant of a little girl named Priscilla who was brought here from
Contemporary Leon to the Carolina low country.
The gentleman in purple,
I'm shaking hands with Isaiah is a Sierra Leonean immigrant named Amadu Massally.
He was flown in that day to be the kinda efficient at this sara ceremony,
which is a ceremony of remembrance to rest the souls of ancestors who had been lost,
and in this case lost in the course of the middle passage.
So, the location for
this was the shores of the Ashley river just outside of Charleston.
An important historical location because it was the side of at least two well known
and quite large slave auctions.
It was also a point of disembarkment for slave ships, so
it had symbolic significance.
So this is Massally pictured here who had on hand that day soil from Sierra Leon
that he cast into the Ashley River in the course of doing the sara ceremony
Gentleman here who referred to himself as a DNA Sierra Leonean,
was given participated in the ceremony by laying this wreath in the lake.
And this is Isaiah on the shore of the Ashley River at the ceremonies.
And I don't know if you can see in the distance but what was quite,
there was many things that were surreal about this day that was taking place in
the 21st century to remember the 18th and 19th centuries.
But part of this reality of the day is that it was behind the suburban
subdivision, in the Carolinas.
So the tests help not just with identity but with a kind of often personal, or
societal, or group like reckoning with the history of racial slavery.
They often also allow people to expand their identity in a diasporic way as well.
So this is Leon Sullivan pictured here in the metric middle with the dark suit.
He was a Civil Rights era preacher, died in 2004.
And he's pictured there with Martin Luther King.
He was a little bit older than King but had a large role to play, nevertheless.
As many Baptist preachers do, he had several messianic visions.
He wrote about one of them in one of his memoirs called Build Brother Build.
And he tells us that he heard and heeded a call from our God and from Africa and
from African Americans.
And others of the black diaspora to try to unite the people of African heritage with
Africa to make a link, to build a bridge.
So we know that this diaspora link, this diaspora bridge had often been imagined.
It had been a sense of linked fate, it had been a sense of political allegiance
that couldn't be necessarily demonstrated through any kind of evidence,
but didn't also need to be.
Indeed, Sullivan spent a lot of his time doing work on the African continent.
Doing philanthropy, doing economic and social development work.
He'd also become important, those of you who've taken business ethic classes,
might be familiar with the Sullivan principles which are named for him.
Which became ethical principles by which multinational
corporations could operate in post apartheid South Africa.
Although some might say there are no principles under which multinational
corporations should be operating in South Africa at that time.
And he was also the first African American to join many corporate boards
including GM, so really big deal.
So in 1991, he starts a series of bilateral gatherings,
biennial bilateral gatherings on the continent of Africa that were mostly
American elites and African elites, called the Leon Sullivan Summits.
And they were to sort of really foster the work that he had been doing in his life,
social and economic development and the like.
And it not only included, sort of elite African-Americans,
but also elite American politicians.
Condoleezza Rice has attended one of these, as did George W Bush.
Paul Wolfowitz, the former leader of the World Bank, and many others.
Bill Clinton was the Honorary Chairman of the Board of the Leon Sullivan Foundation.
So this was a pretty well-healed endeavor.
So in 2008, this idea of building a link in making a bridge,
there's a shift in that.
It had been a bridge or a link that was assumed.
In 2008, the Leon Sullivan Foundation begins to encourage people to,
African-Americans, to do genetic ancestry testing.
And to do social and economic development work based on the inferences
they received from the African Ancestry Company.
So this is a screenshot from their 2008 conference which took place in Arusha,
Tanzania, which offered the option of genetic ancestry testing with
the African Ancestry Company.
With the Holy Grail of this experience being what Isaiah Washington would
accomplish for himself in 2009, which is dual citizenship in Sierra Leone,
based his mitochondrial DNA testing and, likely, also on his celebrity.
I took this photograph at Atlanta in a ballroom.
He was carrying in his breast pocket, and it was dog eared, he'd only had it for
a couple of months.
I said Isaiah, in 2010 rather I said well,
why are you carrying this passport in Atlanta?
And he said, in all seriousness, he said these are my freedom papers.
So there's this idea and this desire for dual-citizenship, for
a kind of DNA diaspora, and a DNA citizenship
that is one of the out growths of genetic ancestry testing potentially.
And is one of the reconciliation projects that quite literal reconciliation of one
to a nation's state, that one might believe belong to them.
So, as I suggested they were activist at the African Burial Ground who were also
not interested at all in the science, and wanted the souls of those people who
were uncovered, the graves that were uncovered, to be rested immediately.
And there became a series of drumming,
candlelight vigils at this site that went on for days and days on end.
Just a photograph, actually, from the African Burial Ground Monument there.
One of these activists was a women named Deadria Farmer-Paellmann.
She was quoted around this time in the New York Times
as being there on the day before, one of the days before it becomes a full sail.
The site becomes a kind of academic research site and
it's still kind of the salvage archaeology research site.
And she talks with the New York Times reporter of seeing
a skull pulled up with a backhoe, and
sort of feeling like her ancestors were calling out for her to do something.
She was familiar with the work of Rick Kittles, because as I said he was
a graduate student at George Washington, finishing his PhD and she had encountered
him there because she did a master's degree there around the same time.
And so was following his work as a researcher at
the African Burial Ground Research Project.
In 2002, she becomes a historic figure,
she becomes what some call the Rosa Parks of the Reparation's Litigation movement.
When in 2002, she is the lead plaintiff in a class action suit for reparations for
slavery, Farmer-Paellmann versus FleetBoston.
So, some of you will remember there was lots of news coverage.
Companies are sued for slave reparations.
There had been some earlier attempts, the prior attempt almost a 100 years earlier
to use the courts to sort of push advance the cause of reparations for slavery.
But these earlier attempts ran up against the doctrine of sovereign immunity
which suggest that the executive branch cannot sue itself, right?
So, Farmer-Paellmann comes up with a strategy to sue corporations,
multinational corporations that existed in 2002,
in part because of the profits that were gained from,
in the case of CSX, transporting enslaved persons on rail cars.
In the case of Lloyd's of London, Warrant Aetna,
insuring owners of enslaved people, and the like.
So there were 21 multinational corporations, and 8 plaintiffs.
So you won't be surprised to hear, and I should say, that what they saw
was what they call, what they were seeking were not sort of individual checks for
people, but what they call a humanitarian trust fund.
That would be distributed at another time, and
the disposition of which would be decided at another time.
But the point that they were making was really that reparations were due.
So 21 multinational corporations, 21 white shoe law firms,
lots of legal firepower, there soon is a dismissal.
So as early as 2004 there's a dismissal on a couple of different points but
significant for our conversation today is the standing doctrine.
So the January 2004 dismissal the court says the courts says plaintiffs cannot
establish a personal injury sufficient to confer standing.
Meaning that they are the injured party to whom restitution is owed
by merely alleging some genealogical relationship to African-Americans
held in slavery over 100, 200 or 300 years ago.
So Farmer Pellman and her lawyers, who are high-powered in a different way.
One of her attorneys was a guy named Edward Fagan,
who a couple of years before had succeeded in successfully suing a Swiss bank
on behalf of Holocaust survivors.
So they go back to the drawing board, and they come back with a narrower case,
still with eight plaintiffs, there's fewer defendants.
And then they come up with a retort to this critique that they weren't meeting
the standing threshold.
So Farmer Pellman as Gina Page,
Rick Kittles business partner tells me shows up in the offices of
African Ancestry in Washington DC in 2003 with two of the other plaintiffs.
Gina doesn't know that they're coming, and they show up and
say we need to purchase some of these genetic ancestry testing kits, and
we need to test a bunch of people.
So African Ancestry finds itself involved in this preparations case in part because,
as I said, Farmer Pellman knew about Rick Kittle's work.
So they get these test results later in 2004.
They enter into evidence, the first time ever genetic ancestry testing evidence is
entered in a civil case, right?
So we know that genetics is used in family court,
we know that it's used in criminal courts.
The first ever in a civil court case,
again African-Americans as early adopters and pioneers in this space.
The evidence suggest that they produced some of the plaintiffs are inferred to be
related to contemporary populations in Gambia, Niger, Nigeria and the like.
They introduced this as evidence that they're not just merely alleging
a genealogical relationship to people who had been enslaved but,
in fact a genetic relationship, a demonstrated relationship.
So within a year, an appellate court again dismisses the reparations claim,
the smaller case,
because the genetic ancestry test results are in fact not sufficient enough.
A key sentence here, and it's a very long response the court makes.
"Genetic mapping or DNA testing alone is insufficient to provide a decisive link to
So, what's happening in the case among other things in the second dismissal is
that the court is saying, and indeed it goes to Richard Posner's court,
the conservative jurist and intellectual.
And even Posner, writing for the rest of the group, says, we accept that
the history of slavery was a blight and that it in fact affects people today.
But genetic ancestry testing, a testing that is really intended for
large aggregate groups of populations.
A form on analysis based on the population cannot demonstrate individual genealogy
in a way that the court would need.
So the court was asking for an individual who could trace themselves quite
specifically to an individual who had been enslaved, right?
And at the same time could trace a line of capital, right?
That traveled from CSX to it's predecessors, and
that person being carried on those trains.
So this reconciliation project is stalled.
But it's an interesting gesture and those of you who followed Ta-Nehisi Coates
2014 essay in the Atlantic really understand how was this case I think that
kept the drum beat for this conversation going.
And indeed that this case perhaps passed the baton to him and
the different argument that he makes.
That's a different strategy if you read the article for making a case for
reparations, which is about the after effects of racial inequality and
housing and unemployment and elsewhere.
Okay, so just a few last slides to wrap up.
So in the course of doing this research, I told I was writing,
as I was researching, it was not a dynamic that I had expected.
And so I was often asked in the course of giving presentations in the early days of
my research whether or not I had taken one of these tests.
So what I don't tell you is when I begin doing this research,
I do it in part because I think it's all a little bit ridiculous.
I think you'll see that I've came to be quite empathetic in the course of ten
years of research.
And so I thought why would people do this?
Do they really, is this so important?
And so I was never particularly interested in being a subject in my own story.
But again and again the question was asked to me as a participant,
as an observer and it became a question of my own legitimacy like how can I
possibly tell this story if I hadn't yet had this experience.
So I figured that if I'm gonna do it, I'm gonna do it big.
I had planned to go to the 2010 Leon Sullivan Summit,
which doesn't take place on the continent of Africa for all sorts of controversial
reasons involving an African despot and misplaced, misappropriated money.
And the Leon Sullivan Foundation would subsequently kind of shutter for
a year or so.
Too much controversy and it was much in the press.
So I was planning to go to this 2010 event it doesn't happen and
instead, the Leon Sullivan Foundation holds what the call
a Global African Reunion in Atlanta.
It happens a few days after UN, in September after the UN General Assembly,
when there's still a lot of African diplomats and
politicians in the United States.
So I end up, so in a few months earlier,
I do my registration for this global African reunion and
I take the registration plus DNA testing option.
And I'm sitting with my researcher assistant in my office and
just like feeling a bit freaked out, actually I think about the whole thing.
And send them they put my tissues sample, my buccal swab and
some saliva in a FedEx envelope sample, sent it off.
So about a month and a half later I get an email from the Leon Sullivan Foundation,
and I agree in doing this to participate in a public reveal ceremony at this event.
About a month later I get an email from the organization that says that
the reveal ceremony that I've agreed to participate in has become now royal.
Why is it become royal all in caps?
Because the reveal ceremony will also include the revelation of
the African countries to which the son of Martin Luther King Jr.,
Martin Luther King III can lay claim to him, the scion of the civil rights leader.
So I say, this is gonna get very interesting.
It also becomes another moment, the sort of public performance of a civil
rights leader and genetics and sort of Africa as a moment in which again we think
genetics is doing so much more in the world than giving us identity.
It was symbolically doing a lot more,
there was a lot of symbolic excess on this evening.
So, this is the photograph I took on that evening when I was to receive my
Myself and two other African-American women we're kind of the opening act.
I did a mitochondrial DNA and
was told that I was related to the Bamileke people of Cameroon.
The MC that night was Isaiah Washington.
That is the coat jacket and the breast pocket in which he carried his
Sierra Leonean passport, his picture there next to Rick Kittles.
And in the background is Leon Sullivan, holding up one of his many passports that
he accomplished in the course of doing his work.
He had dual citizenship in the Gambia, in Cote dâIvoire and other places.
So the opening act was by the time we arrived,
not only Martin Luther King III but Julius Garvey, the son of Marcus Garvey.
A fairly unassuming retired cardiac surgeon who lives
in the suburbs of Long Island New York.
Who only really displayed his father's radical legacy by the small red, black and
green lapel pin that he wore on his otherwise plain gray flannel suit.
He was told that evening that his mitochondrial DNA went to West Africa and
that the Y chromosome tested to Western Europe,
I think he was sort of Scotland and Ireland.
This is Martin Luther King III, so Rick Kittles,
Hope Masters which was the daughter of Leon Sullivan.
Martin Luther King III with his sister, Jenna Page, Isaiah Washington.
That evening he was told also that his Y chromosome traced to
Europe on the patrilineal side.
And scientific peer reviewed research suggests that in the case of
African Americans, about 28 to 32% of Y chromosomes trace to Europe.
And that his mitochondrial DNA traced to the continent of Africa,
to West Africa more particularly.
So they went to the mic,
and told two very different stories that day, about what DNA could do.
Julius Garvey said that of course he understood this and he was not surprised.
And I learned from Rick Kittles earlier that evening they had been told in advance
what their results were.
The three women, we didn't know but they were told in advance.
And so they were able to sorta put together their stories that fit with these
particular legacies that they wanted to tell.
So Julius Garvey talked about the history of chattel slavery.
And how he was not surprised given this history that it would be embodied in his
very body and his very genetics, this legacy.
King III, you won't be surprised to hear,
really told the story about the global human family.
He told a story that was one about, this is a sad history and
one that we'd understand.
But we need to understand that fundamentally we are all related.
My hero, one of my heroes, Mary-Claire King, who I showed you earlier has this
wonderful phrase which says, "After the human genome project,
we know that everybody is different and everybody is the same", right?
And the spectrum of stories that happened in between
there are part of what I've tried to suggest to you this afternoon.
And that genetic ancestry testing can play a role in how we think about the past of
our country and how we try to reconcile what that past means for us.
Thank you very much.
>> So I'm glad to take questions, comments.
Thank you for your attention, it's very hot in here.
Criticisms and the like.
Thank you so much for such a fascinating presentation.
I personally loved it,
because I was an intern on the African Burial Ground Project as an undergrad
And Michael Gomez was my advisor, so- There we go, the world's colliding.
But I have a question here.
>> Yes. >> As a historian of slavery specifically,
I'm always intrigued by this question of archives.
And sort of thinking about the silences of the archives that we often use as
And the ways that bodies can supplement knowledge that has been silenced in
But then also thinking about the stakes of creating an archive based on the knowledge
that you're dealing with.
And so I was wondering if you can talk a little bit about just sort of starting
with, where does this knowledge go, is it being archived in any way?
And then have people given any thought to, I'm sure they have, but
sort of what are some of the debates around the stakes of the production
of this kind of knowledge?
And then how it's stored, how it's accessed and for what purposes?
Thank you. >> And so by the knowledge you mean
the genetic, the tissue, or the samples, the data?
>> Wherever you'd like to take it, I don't really know.
I'm just kind of thinking about, and
I'm connecting it to this story now about kind of in crime about sort of how
knowledge about family members bodies can then get activated in other contexts.
>> Okay, great, thank you for that.
So I guess I'd offer in respond that one of the things that's
very different from genetic analysis in a academic setting and
these tests, is that there's no checks on this work at all.
They don't have to tell us where the knowledge goes.
They don't have to tell us what they do with it.
There are attempts to create kind of industry standards
about what set of markers, and what size reference database is robust and credible.
But the companies hold the algorithms that they create, and
how the different ways that they weight markers,
as well as their reference databases as trade secrets, right?
So this is where genetic testing companies are also kind of information companies.
There's the test,
in some ways the genetic sample are a kind of IP that they're trying to preserve.
So we don't know a lot about where they go.
I mean what's important about the African Ancestry Company, and
Rick Kittles company, is that he knows that this question is important to
the niche consumer that he's trying to reach.
And so he throws away, well, he instructs the laboratory.
The Mormon owned Salt Lake City based Sorenson Genomics to which
most genetics samples from many of these companies,
not just that that company, are sent to be amplified and sequenced.
That company is instructed to throw it away, so we have to trust that they do and
he trust that they do.
They send the data back to him to analyze against his database and
he claims that he throws all the data away.
So he keeps none of the, on either end doesn't keep any of the stuff that could
actually be useful and profitable in other ways, that's what he claims, right?
But we know that now, 23andMe, which people think about starting
as a genetic ancestry testing company, but they do that later.
So 23andMe exists for a good year before they start to do ancestry testing.
And they're doing kind of quirky dry or wet earwax, can you taste bitter,
and these sorts of things, and some health testing.
So with 23andMe, we now know that their end game are pharma patents,
pharmaceutical patents potentially.
And so you're effectively participating in a research trial
when you're buying a product and
participating in a clinical research trial.
And so the companies, some of them make no
claims that all to do anything that's really preserving your identity.
And they suggest that they will do other things with it.
There's also a kind of iterative piece about genetic databases that
because bigger databases are more robust.
Sometimes you wanna incorporate the data that you're getting from others into
the database, to potentially make the findings more robust and the like.
So that's the kind of long winded way of saying we don't actually know
where the knowledge goes, right?
I mean certainly one of what I've been trying to trace for
you in the social life of DNA is where the knowledge circulates of the social sphere.
But we don't necessarily know where it goes elsewhere.
The stakes of the knowledge are the ones that you would expect.
Particularly for consumers that come from marginalized groups that have a history
of various forms of discrimination.
So, There are some potential risks.
We know there was a story about a year and a half ago in which an ancestry.com
kind of Y chromosome database project that was a surname project so
the Usry family -- U-S-R-Y -- there is a Y chromosome project that had markers there.
There was a cold case in Idaho.
And police authorities thought that they had a suspect who was surnamed Asri,
and traced the DNA sample that they had from the case in this database.
So it didn't turn out to be a connection, but it caught up an individual and
his son in this sort of complicated legal struggle in the end.
So part of the social life of DNA, really, is the way that we as researchers,
and often as consumers, think that DNA is sort of contained in one
social sphere where it can travel between spheres.
In this case, travelling from ancestry to the criminal justice system.
And, indeed, I found in my interviews with folks that
they often understood them to be a kind of all in the same.
So I'd actually didn't bring those slides up today,
but people I would talk to say, would say, now that I've done 23 and
me testing, I have a better sense of what my genetic counselor was trying to tell me
about the history of breast cancer in my family.
So there's a kind of sort of domain spillover.
Although, medical sociologists think about genetics differently from criminologists,
differently from people who work on health genetics.
In the social sphere, there's kind of this kind of potential kind of spillover,
that's certainly one of the stakes of it.
And then there's all sorts of questions about did Sierra Leon
exist during the middle passage?
[LAUGH] These identities are kind of contemporary historical
formations that may or may have nothing or
anything to do with the identities that people are really invested in.
There's that piece, there's also that kind of particularly for
Kittles' project, which begins with publicly available samples and then goes
on to an accumulation of samples that he himself collects on the African continent.
A potential kind of uneven exchange.
It was an exchange often for healthcare services.
So depending on your perspective, that's an equal exchange or not.
But it's a service that's done for a relatively wealthy,
African-American, middle-class, upper middle-class consumers.
And Africa becomes a kind of resource to authenticate the sort of political and
social and identificory desires of the consumers so, yeah.
>> Thanks, Lisa.
That was a quite fascinating tour journey through this.
One of the things that interests me I should say is that this boundary between
ancestry and race- >> Yes.
>> And it's interesting that it's called African ancestry, that ancestry by DNA.
They're all clear that their ancestry not race.
I wonder if you might just speak a bit as you were talking with folks over
the ten year period or so the extent to which they understood that boundary or
whether you found people constantly drifting across.
I'm interested to hear more about that.
>> I think yeah, there's a lot of drift, but I do think that why Michael Gomez's
work for me is so important is that it's very clear in people that I talk to that
the African Americans that I interviewed that African
well genetic ancestry testing offers a retreat from race possibly, right?
So that if what happens after the middle passage is sort of caste making and race
making in a kind of very general form, to be able to have even a very bad inference
of an ethnic specificity offers kind of a new possibility I think for people.
And so I think that is more ancestry than race.
I mean that is an explicit sort of negation of race in a particular way.
But lots of tests do lots of different things, so
the ancestry by DNA, and now the gosh the 23andMe tool,
which is ancestry painting.
These are effectively racist, right?
I mean, you can be sort of percentages of three or four populations.
And the headings are Sub-Saharan African and East Asian, and
now they're getting more specific.
But effectively, they're standing in for
four races that are not far off from Linnaeus, right?
From the five racial categories that we had hundreds of years ago.
So there's that flippage there as well.
But there's also, I think a lot of well-intentioned
debate among I think geneticists about this, right?
And thinking about that what genetics gives you is a population category, right?
It's not an individual racial identity.
It's not a racial category that these things sort of blur in between and
around the edges and are not these sort of distinct things that we
might call race in a very kind of classical kinda lineal way.
And so it's a lot more complicated but I think that ancestry also because it
suggests, I mean I guess race has done this in some of the literature too if
you think about the Volk and that sort of thing.
But it does work around race but it's also doing a lot more.
And it's more blurry, and it's also where I depart from a lot of my
colleagues in the social sciences and also from my beloved teacher,
Troy Duster, who understands these tests to just be racist,
their outcome to be a kind of racial essentialism.
And part of what I was hoping to show with that kind of detour through
the African Burial Ground Research Product and the activism there,
is that even lay people have an understanding that there is a kind of
science that can be done that is not about race, that can be and
not about a kind of biological racing but about something much more complicated.
>> I just had a question about the African ancestry testing.
As you said, they're taking the Y chromosome and
the mitochondria, which don't recombine with anything.
>> Yeah, which is why they're useful but limited, right?
>> Very limited.
I mean saying someone is from Sierra Leone based on the Y chromosome, that chromosome
only has to enter in once but the add mixture or other.
The painting is much more informative about where your existing DNA,
what population it comes from.
>> It was the court commenting on that point, or they were-
>> No, this was a decade ago.
I mean it's only a couple of years that we've
have the painting at the level of specificity of nation states.
>> Even four years ago, I think you can now do 23 and Me in Ancestry.com and
get sort of Nigeria Benin, you can actually get sort of subcategories.
But that wasn't true a few years ago.
So it was the sub-Saharan African.
>> But does African Ancestry provide that service now or is it?
>> Yeah, they have a test called My DNA mix that does that as well.
>> Okay. >> Yeah, but
I would say in my earlier work, I used this phrase genealogical aspiration.
And for a population a subset of consumers,
before the ancestry painting got more complicated,
it was very important to have a nation state or an ethnic group, and
not just a haplotype group or a proportion that said sub-Saharan African.
Which, as one of my respondents said, I could've guessed that on my own.
So All right,
thank you for this incredible talk I really appreciated it.
So a lot of what you talked about was the African ancestry and
those type of tests that do pinpoint you to a specific like tribe.
>> Pinpoint probably not the right word.
>> Okay, not pinpoint, but appear to pinpoint to a single tribe or group.
>> And people are able to get certificates and point to this is where I come from.
>> Yes. >> And have all of this spiritual and
cultural work done.
And I'm wondering if you've seen any differences with things like 23andMe and
the painting that sort of takes away that singular point of ancestry, but
is maybe more accurate in some ways.
>> Yeah, well I'd also put scare quotes around accurate but-
>> [LAUGH] Sure.
>> Because I think as a sociologist of science I'm very interested in
how statistical categories become social categories, right?
I mean, the category of Benin or Nigeria even in ancestry painting is a statistical
choice that's made to say that these markers mean this thing in the world, and
I think that's a kind of complicated translation.
There's lots of different tests on the market.
So there are tests that for some people ancestry painting is the test that
they want and makes sense to them, right?
But some people are looking for something that doesn't have,
what might be considered, noise.
Some people are looking for something I think perhaps more accurate than both
are haplotype groups, which offer large swaths of space and time.
So one of the people I write about gets a haplotype group analysis that
infers her that in first Ethiopia, plus or minus 50,000 years ago, right?
That kind of Biblical Ethiopia.
I think that there's a piece of it that is about the sort of improve
robustness of the tests over time, which I would grant, but
a part of it is also about the information that people want.
So one would think, I think in response to your question, why do people still do Y
chromosome and mitochondrial DNA testing if they could do only ancestry painting?
Because it's important and
it gives them information that's interesting to them, right?
And certainly this kind of idea about accuracy, in a society that's
like ours that's sort of over determined by patrimonial descent the Y chromosome is
very powerful the way that maps on to male surnames to family surnames.
So I think there's different ways of going about the question of ancestral ties.
>> I actually have a question.
>> Chair's prerogative.
>> Yeah, I'm struck by how interdisciplinary your work is.
And how, rather than being strictly a scientist or
a sociologist of the way in which DNA science is put
to use by particular agrieved communities.
In this case African-Americans who've experienced this
rupture because of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.
>> So I'm wondering, I mean there's so
much language that you are using that points to the uncertainty of the science.
>> And I'm wondering if part of what you are arguing is that the science,
there's a leap of faith, even in the face of the uncertainty.
It's not of so great importance to you that the science be correct, and
I think this is partly, maybe, what David is asking, too.
>> Sure, sure, sure.
>> There is a kind of will, and
a desire to believe in a science that is even uncertain.
>> Yeah, sure.
>> And I wonder if you could comment on that.
>> Sure, sure, I mean, as I was trying to suggest before,
none of these companies are gold standard science, right?
To the extent that you can't I mean if gold standard science
is being able to verify, being able to have transparent databases,
being able to reproduce what another company has done.
I mean, it's still the case that you can send the same sample to several different
direct-to-consumer genetic testing companies and get different results.
Not because one's swindling you and one's more accurate.
But because they're making different statistical assumptions,
they have different reference databases, each of them have different kind of
statistical worlds that you're dealing with, right?
But accuracy is not the chief question for me by any stretch of the imagination.
And nor is it for people that I speak with.
I mean I think what's more interesting on the sort of accuracy
valance is the increasing ability for consumers to get all of
their genetic markers and to upload them to a third party app.
That allowed them to sort of think about what's accurate, right?
So since a company's not gonna sort of reveal to you what's accurate,
you can things like get map, match, and
other kind of applications that will point you to genetic papers that say
things about a particular set of markers or haplotype that you have.
That allow you to sort of adjudicate for your self what these things are.
So yeah, so I'm interested in that particular circulation, as you say, Lisa.
And I'm particularly interested in, as I was suggesting last night in the seminar,
the use of tools like genetic ancestry testing by
populations that have been for a very long time, the objects of scientific scrutiny.
So how did these communities become the sorta agents and
actors in thinking about the scientific world?
And certainly the Black Panthers genetic testing work is some of that.
And this is the space for thinking about that as well.
And part of the leap of faith is not only a leap about the science.
It's a leap that this endeavor won't lead to sort of deleterious ends yet again.
>> Hi, thank you.
This was incredibly fascinating.
I was also in some ways surprised by the way that in and through this process
it seemed like people who had genetic testing then were able to, or felt
that they were able to, trace an identity back to sort of a specific location.
And sort of, I mean in this kind of quest for authenticity or something.
And that, because it contrasts very
much with another example that I've heard of only through kind of a news article.
And I'm Lebanese, and there's a lot of, sort of identity within Lebanon
of sort of associating certain identities with a certain kind of genetic heritage.
>> Yeah, yeah, sure.
>> Right, and the whole government is based on some of that also.
But there had been an example of some Maronites that tried to trace their
lineage back, and there's this idea that it is identified with
a Phoenician heritage, and then- >> I don't know these papers, okay.
>> Yes, and had discovered,
it's sort of exposed the fallacy of this idea of authenticity.
And so it's a very much a kind of contrast of like,
they found out that their ancestors were, in fact, from parts of North Africa and
from kind of all parts of the world and not kind of what they were expecting.
And so I think that that's really interesting.
>> But that's true of this as well, but it's where your entry point is and
what's the tool or the vehicle you use, right?
So if you are to do testing, even if you do conventional genealogy that opens up
the whole pie, it's really complicated and messy in there.
And there's no way to tell a very simple story about a single origin in a way
that's not very complicated, right?
So in the case of African Americans it will include slaveholders and
people who were enslaved.
It'll include, probably, lots of incest, all sorts of intrigue and
it's the case that So it's as complicated here as well.
And that's why I like to hang onto that Mary Claire King quote
about what the human genome project leaves us with,
is that we're all different and we're all the same.
It's precisely both of those things, right?
So that one can devote themselves to the sort of slicing and
dicing of the thin vein of sort of 0.1 or 0.2% of difference or
to the 99.9, etc, sort of similarity.
Until very different stories about the world and
about political communities, as well.
>> Have one question, which is, I mean, it's sort of because there is so
much mixing when you then say well, they're from these people in the Cameroon.
I mean, where did that DNA come from and then just kind of,
there's this irony that's really hit me.
Which is that people are tracing their authenticity back to spaces that are sort
of defined by a country, whose borders were drawn by colonial powers.
So that's just kind of amazing.
>> Yeah, >> Because [CROSSTALK]
Sierra Leone is a relatively- >> I can't hear you, but what?
>> As you were saying, the Sierra Leone to which he wants
the citizenship is a relatively racist- >> Yeah, of course, I mean,
these are borders that come after the scramble for Africa precisely.
I mean, yes, true, and people know that right, but that to be denied for
an identity, even if it's technically constrained,
is better than not having any possibilities at all, right?
So if you think about the Mary Waters quote about black Americans having ethnic
options sort of historically constrained.
So if that's your other option, right, then yeah, you can imagine it.
But there's all sorts of, I mean, there's lots of fascinating papers that delve into
other kinds of historical projects.
There's some papers on Arabs and Palestinians, Palestinians and
Jews, and sort of thinking about genetic similarities there.
There's papers on Dalits and caste in India.
There is a kind of global flow of this that's very interesting,
and in some ways, very particular.
But also, there are similarities as well.
I was in Abudabi about two weeks ago, and genetics and
geneology is popular there because descent to the prophet Mohamed matters, right?