Throughout Alondra Nelson’s book The Social Life of DNA, we learn that what matters about genetic ancestry testing is not the extent of its scientific accuracy or its efficacy in achieving the goals to which it is applied, but rather where and how it focuses our attention. Genetic ancestry thus is not only a technology that can be used towards disparate goals, but also an optic through which we might learn to see differently.
Much of Nelson’s text examines a series of what she terms “reconciliation projects” that use genetic ancestry to accomplish more than just extended kinship connections; these illustrate the central concept of the book, “the social life of DNA,” which describes how DNA travels, how and by whom it is taken up, and to what ends. Her examples of the use of genetic ancestry to address the ongoing injuries of slavery are incredibly compelling and tell a story in which genetic ancestry’s development and increasingly varied application is inexorably intertwined with African American history and pursuits of racial justice. What becomes visible through the prism of genetic ancestry, Nelson argues, is racial inequality. What matters then about genetic ancestry testing is its ability to bring racial inequality into focus in a cultural milieu that insistently clings to “color-blindness” as a desirable achievement and the “post-racial” as something that has already been achieved. No matter, then, that Deadria Farmer-Paellmann’s reparations lawsuit was dismissed, despite the fact that it utilized genetic ancestry testing to establish explicit links between African American plaintiffs and African ethnic groups in an attempt to demonstrate their standing to bring suit against companies that had profited from the slave trade. The case kept the question of reparations in public conversation and consciousness. Furthermore, the use of genetic ancestry to establish standing, combined with widespread public perception of genetic evidence as more true than other forms of evidence (what Nelson refers to as “the social power of DNA”), ensured that many people could see more clearly an explicit, direct link between the plaintiffs and their enslaved ancestors, even if the court could not.
What also becomes visible through the optic of genetic ancestry is a revitalization of diaspora that is animated through particular images of Africa. Genetic ancestry has breathed new life into how people produce and contest diasporic connection, and how Africa is envisioned in the process. For example, in my work on the afterlives of genetic ancestry research studies, Africa simultaneously came into focus for different people as a site of Jewish diaspora and as a site of Jewish origin (Tamarkin 2014). The phenomenon that Nelson investigates brings Africa into focus in a different way. Nelson demonstrates that through personalized genetic ancestry test reports, Africa comes into focus as a static map of ethnic groups that links ancestry seekers to ethnic identities that are in turn linked to particular places. Reading Nelson’s accounts of interlocutors who began to learn about or travel to the specific African countries to which they had been genetically matched, I was reminded of Paulla Ebron’s book Performing Africa (2002), which includes an ethnographic account of African American heritage tourism to Senegambia that took place before the popularization and widespread availability of direct-to-consumer genetic ancestry testing products. The tour that Ebron writes about was framed to participants as a pilgrimage home. It strikes me that the “home” envisioned through this pre-genetic ancestry heritage tour was constituted as such as a generalized image of Africa. To what extent, and to what end, does the optic of genetic ancestry focus attention to a different, more specific, and yet inevitably still generalized, “home”? Nelson argues that genetic information works as a diasporic resource (Brown 2005) that “occasions the weaving of a social mesh between African communities and their dispersed members, even in the absence of specific kinship ties” (Nelson 2016: 145). But it struck me that one of the most enthusiastic African responses to the invitation to become socially enmeshed with African American genetic ancestry test-takers came not from Africans encountered through heritage tourism but rather from an Angolan expatriate community in a U.S. city. The expatriate community sponsored an event in the U.S. that celebrated the anniversary of Angola’s independence. Marvin, who lived in the same U.S. city and who had recently learned of his genetic ancestral affinity with Mbundu people in Angola, was invited. Upon arrival at the celebration, he was welcomed “home” (Nelson 2016: 144). In this vision of home, how is Africa envisioned? This vision of genetically-mediated home appears to be not a place at all but social enmeshment itself. In this way, the optic of genetic ancestry testing brings into focus a multi-directional African diaspora in which the meaning of “home” is anything but fixed, even while Africa as a place comes into focus as a series of ethnicities fixed in time and space.
Noah Tamarkin is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Comparative Studies at The Ohio State University. His research examines the social circulation of genomics, postcolonial citizenship, and the racial and religious politics of belonging. Trained as a cultural anthropologist, his research and teaching are also informed by science and technology studies, feminist studies, African studies, and Jewish studies. He is currently writing a book manuscript Jewish Blood, African Bones: The Afterlives of Genetic Ancestry, which analyzes how Lemba South Africans reconcile their understanding of their genetic test results as proof that they have Jewish blood with their active pursuit of claims to ancient bones now reburied at the World Heritage Site Mapungubwe, a thirteenth century southern African kingdom.
Brown, Jacqueline Nassy. 2005. Dropping Anchor, Setting Sail: Geographies of Race in Black Liverpool. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Ebron, Paulla A. 2002. Performing Africa. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Nelson, Alondra. 2016. The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation After the Genome. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
Tamarkin, Noah. 2014. “Genetic Diaspora: Producing Knowledge of Genes and Jews in Rural South Africa.” Cultural Anthropology 29.3: 552-574.