Dr. Alondra Nelson is a Professor of Sociology at Columbia University and awarding winning author who has published numerous books such as “The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation after the Genome.” Through her work, Dr. Nelson looks at the ways ancestry, race, and DNA come together in American society. She is currently the Dean of Social Science at Columbia. Here she talks about how she became interested in genealogy and using genetic testing as a tool to trace one’s roots.
Q. You have said that the book and television series, Roots as well as the African Burial Ground in Lower Manhattan have been major influences in sparking your interest in ancestry, genetics and race. Could you tell us more about what got you interested in these topics?
A: The Roots book, the 1977 Roots TV miniseries and the African Burial Ground project (a lower Manhattan cemetery of formerly enslaved and colonial era Africans that was founded in 1991) are both really focused on ancestry. For me, genealogy is a tool for looking at both past and present.
Q: Can you tell us more about how tracing one’s roots has changed over the past decade or so?
A: In 2003 I started to think about genetic ancestry testing and direct-to-consumer testing. It was clear to me from early interviews I did with people that part of what genetic ancestry tests were trying to do is fulfill the desire for identity among not only African Americans, but lots of Americans. But, at that time it wasn’t really possible for lots of people. Alex Haley, the author of Roots, was an elite. He could afford to travel to the continent of Africa and to the UK to talk to people and visit archives--all things that many average people weren’t able to do. What the Roots book and TV miniseries did was create the desire and the expectation that one can trace their past. and now they had the tools available to do so.
Q: Can you tell us more about using genetic testing to trace our roots?
A: The African Burial Ground project is one of the first times in the United States where genetic tools were used to trace the ancestry of the people buried there. Uncovered in 1991 at the construction site of a federal building, it became a research site where scientists tried to use some of the best genetic techniques available at that time. One that they wanted to try was genetic analysis of the remains to see if they might be able to make an educated guess about where on the African continent the people buried there might have come from.
Q: How is tracing one’s roots especially meaningful to people whose ancestors were enslaved?
A: Genealogy personalizes the history of slavery by tracing families and shining a light on how close in time these experiences are. Some would say “slavery was so long ago so get over it. Why are we still even talking about it?” I think it is more powerful to say, “I know through genealogy that my great great grandmother was enslaved.” That is something that most people can relate to. We might not have known our great grandmother, but we think about those generations of people and they don’t feel to us as very distant and abstract.
Photo by Eileen Barosso