Can DNA tests help repair social ruptures from transatlantic slavery?

In 2002, descendants of African slaves filed a historic class-action lawsuit in U.S. federal court demanding reparations from financial, railroad, tobacco, insurance and textile companies that had benefited from their predecessors.

Reparations lawyer Deadria Farmer-Paellmann was tasked with proving direct links between the plaintiffs and the slave trade, so she submitted to the court DNA tests that traced their ancestry to Africa.

According to Alondra Nelson’s book, “The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation after the Genome,” Farmer-Paellmann said the testing had proven “beyond a doubt that there was a fiduciary relationship between the plaintiffs’ ancestors and the defendants’.”

When asked by NewsHour Weekend’s Hari Sreenivasan what happened, Nelson replied, “I haven’t received my check yet, Hari.”

Since then, as she outlines in her book, the African-American community has used these tests to help reckon with the historic injustices that obscured parts of their identities.

She talked with Sreenivasan about the relationships between race, DNA and history. You can read an excerpt of their conversation below.

Why are people doing this genetic testing? Is it for the identity? Is it for a story about themselves?

Those things are related, identities and stories, you know? And I think that people want identities that they can use to tell a rich story, a richer story about their lives. And in the case of African-Americans, part of that story has been lost. “People want identities that they can use to tell a rich story, a richer story about their lives. And in the case of African-Americans, part of that story has been lost.”

And so, what the attempt to use genetic ancestry testing to do to find a nation state, an ethnic group, information that you didn’t have access to before, before we had new technologies that helped us to make some best guesses about where people who are of African descent in the U.S. might be from then allow you to complete a story.

So, the identity piece and the story piece are actually very much connected.

There’s also a notion of ownership, because [they are] opting into it.

That’s the critical piece, because we know for communities of color, that genetics has not always been a rosy piece of research. I mean, that there have been historical tragedies in the past that would lead particularly African-Americans to be suspicious of genetic testing.

And so, the ability to opt-in, the ability to now in the 21st century use genetics to do something powerful, to tell a powerful story about your identity and your life, and to choose how you want to take that story up. So, sometimes people get information that they find useful or interesting, and sometimes they don’t. But because you have opted in as a consumer, you get to choose, you get to adjudicate whether or not you think that information is useful for your story.

There are a couple of political dimensions to this, too. A couple of your chapters are about reparations. But how does this advance that conversation, when really America has had a pretty difficult time even just coming to terms with what’s happened through the Middle Passage?

Yes. So, one of the things I found, I thought that genetic ancestry testing and it’s used by African-Americans, was only about the identity piece. But I found that it was also about bigger politics. So, it’s about — it was about the sort of bigger reckoning with American history.

And what genetic testing and genealogy more generally, whether or not it’s the traditional form or the genetic form allows is a telescoping back in history in a way to get around kind of historical amnesia. So, because it becomes very personal. So, you’re not just saying, oh, you know, your ancestors might have been enslaved and they might have been owned by my ancestors. You’re actually saying, my great, my great grandmother whose name was this lived in this place and she was a former enslaved person.

And so, it really telescopes to the past and brings history to the present in a very personal way so the history of slavery in the United States becomes not abstract but about your neighbor, your classmate and their family members in very material ways. And so, in the reparations case, you know, part of the question and the question remains is that, you know, who are the people to whom reparations might be owed if such a case could be tried?

So, I follow in the book, 2002 class action suit for slavery reparation that winds in and out of the court and is currently stalled. And in this case, an early dismissal, a 2004 dismissal of the case, the court says, you’re merely alleging that you have a genealogical relationship to formerly enslaved people.

And so, the very smart plaintiffs in that case go to a company called African Ancestry which has just started a year before, so we’re now very used to genetic ancestry testing. You know, there’s lots of television shows. It’s in the press, in the media a lot. But at this time, the industry had only been a part of — in the United States, for less than two years.

And so, part of what these reparation activists are doing were using a very cutting edge technology in a new way, or early adaptors of it. So, they go and get mitochondrial and patrilineal genetic ancestry testing. So, the Y-chromosome, patrilineage Y-chromosome and matrilineage testing and they submit that as evidence in the civil court case.

What happened?

What happened? So, I haven’t gotten a check. Have you? I haven’t received my check yet, Hari. So, it’s — they’re not successful, but it’s very interesting because the court has to consider and in some cases — you know, I think some could argue for the very first time what genetic ancestry testing means, what it can tell us, what it can’t tell us.

So, in the end, it wasn’t specific enough. The court really wanted to be able to say, not just you have genetic inheritance that are shared with people in contemporary Nigeria, but like be able to trace your great-great-grandfather and say that this great-great-grandfather was transported on a train that was owned by CSX, or that was insured by Aetna and the like.

So, there’s a level of specificity that these tests couldn’t offer. But, you know, genetic testing is getting more specific, particularly when you can layer it with all the big data revolution in contemporary genealogy.

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