Genealogical studies by black Americans have grown in popularity once companies were able to provide DNA analyses “direct to consumers.” Has it helped civil rights? Social justice? Legal claims? Yes and no, writes Nelson (Sociology and Gender Studies/Columbia Univ.; Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination, 2011, etc.) in this meticulously detailed study.
Fascination with African origins took off in the 1970s with the publication, and subsequent TV adaptation, of Roots. It got a further boost in 1991 when excavations in New York City unearthed a slave graveyard dating to the late 1600s and one of the first-ever DNA analyses was conducted. The research was controversial, but it led to the realization that DNA could establish ethnic linkages to the West African countries that were the sources of the slave trade. These “reconciliations” have been immensely important and satisfying to black genealogy tracers, creating an identity linked to centuries-old cultures and kin, even leading to dual citizenship in some countries. Most of these analyses have used the commercial firm African Ancestry, founded by a geneticist, Rick Kittles, who had worked on the New York burial site and whose fame and occasional controversy are woven into the text. As for social justice, the story is not so sanguine. Social activists have argued for financial reparations for the unpaid slave labor of their ancestors. Class action suits against the government have failed due to statutes of limitation and sovereign immunity. So, interestingly, activists have sued corporations, such as the banks that lent money to slaveholders and the insurance companies that covered the lives of slaves. These, too, have legally lacked “standing” primarily because the DNA of descendants is linked to tribes and ethnicities rather than to distinct individuals.
Nelson adds another chapter to the somber history of injustice toward African-Americans, but it is one in which science is enriching lives by forging new identities and connections to ancestral homelands.