Kieron Graham (center) in Benin, West Africa after participating in an African naming ceremony during his heritage travel trip inspired by his AncestryDNA results.
( Nicka Sewell-Smith/Ancestry
BROOKE GLADSTONE: DNA tests will never confirm membership in the Native American community but African Americans have a use for such biological markers. Indeed, for many black people, DNA testing is just the latest chapter in a long standing search for origins that took off during the Black Power era and was exemplified by the 1977 TV mini-series Roots.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Tonight we present a landmark in television entertainment: Roots. The true story Alex Haley uncovered in his 12 years search across the seven generations of his ancestry. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Sociologist Alondra Nelson says that for the many African-Americans that have been stripped of their ancestral languages their culture and knowledge of their roots, DNA tests, while imperfect can be a solace and a guide.
ALONDRA NELSON: If you know nothing at all, the ability to even be able to get a genetic inference is filling in a lot of information. You know, for example, one of the groups that I encounter are a group of people who call themselves DNA Sierra Leoneans. And for them to be able to have a religious ceremony that they call a Sara, a ceremony of remembrance, about their ancestors who were trafficked and lost during the slave trade, is a kind of reconciliation even as there is an appreciation that the technology doesn't fully fill in all of the gaps.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And you trace the origins of DNA testing for reconciliation purposes back to Argentina after the government disappeared thousands of people during the Dirty War in the 70s and the 80s when they took the children of people who were disappeared and placed them with other families. DNA was used to prove blood relationships.
ALONDRA NELSON: The very young medical geneticist Mary-Claire King who would become quite renowned for her research on the BRCA breast cancer gene, goes to work with these grandmothers in Argentina. The use of it by African-Americans that I trace that begins with the advent of the direct to consumer ancestry testing industry in the United States which emerges in the early aughts is preceded by a couple of decades of other uses of genetics to answer questions about the past.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Among them at the African Burial Ground in lower Manhattan, back in the 90s.
ALONDRA NELSON: Yes. Here you have an African-American geneticist named Rick Kittles and a businesswoman named Gina Paige starting this company in 2003 that's based on scientific research that Rick Kittles does as a member of the African Burial Ground research project.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And what were they looking for?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There was an attempt to put up a federal building that turned out that it was, in fact, a burial ground. And so what starts as a construction site becomes soon after an excavation site. At the time the largest known burial ground that offers us any information about enslaved Africans from colonial era New York. Rick Kittles who hadn't even finished his Ph.D. in genetics could use these new genetic techniques to make some inferences about where on the African continent these buried folks might have hailed from. That process and that question comes to animate the African Ancestry company that he starts in 2003.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The African Ancestry company is that kind of like 23andMe.
ALONDRA NELSON: It is like 23andMe. Although it proceeds 23andMe by about five years.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Oh.
ALONDRA NELSON: So one of the first pioneering companies was a black-owned genetic ancestry testing company that's still in business today.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I did not know that one of the first significant companies to do this was designed to help African Americans discover what their actual roots were.
ALONDRA NELSON: And designed by people who were very well versed in the history of scientific racism. Who could say we understand the limits of the technology. We understand what the history of eugenics and genetics has meant in the world but we are trying to use it in a way that we hope can offer some new information to communities that would otherwise not have it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: One of the points that's most important to you is that it adds complexity to a kind of flattened notion of race. Slavery was a caste system and nobody seemed to care where they came from or what their cultural background was. And this returns that information to people.
ALONDRA NELSON: Genetic ancestry testing becomes a place to turn to offer those possibilities for new ways of thinking about oneself. But it's in the context of technologies that are making kind of inferences and are using, certainly in the early days of the market, a few genetic markers and saying that these few genetic markers are Poland or are Ebo or are Mauretania. And that's a kind of reduction of all of who humans are too few markers. Even as the sort of intention here is to give fullness in humanity. The cost of doing that is to imbue very abstract and technical things with a sense of culture and place.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You chronicled the story of, and I'm going to mess this up, Deardria, Deadra?
ALONDRA NELSON: Deadria Farmer-Paellmann.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Right. She was an activist who organized a class action suit by descendants of slaves in 2002 but she couldn't prove standing. There's no way that she could show that she was a direct descendant of the people whose enslavement these companies profited from.
ALONDRA NELSON: She goes to the African ancestry company in 2004. So the markets about two and a half years old in the United States and purchases genetic ancestry tests and offers them as a sort of response to the critique that they didn't meet the standing doctrine. But these are technologies that come out of human population genetics and so there are not technologies that can really go to the level of the individual.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Why not? I mean don't we use blood tests to prove paternity.
ALONDRA NELSON: So if we go back to the Argentina case you had a close relative, a grandparent, grandmother, grandfather to whom one could compare oneself. Unfortunately, given the long legacy of slavery and our inability to do some of the reconciliation that many are still seeking, many generations have past. Identity is fundamentally a cultural issue, a political issue, a social issue. The reaction to Elizabeth Warren's announcement that she has Native American ancestry I think is a perfect example of this right. Identity is something that we say about ourselves but it's also something that others say about us. You know certainly for African-Americans, even though there's very much a historical and understandable desire to be able to lay claim to identities that are not just about race as caste, it's also the case that particularly in a place like the United States in 2018 that's deeply polarized and becoming deeply racialized. No one is making fine distinctions in the workplace, in the housing market, between forms of African ethnicity or whether or not someone is deemed to be just black or white. And what those racial identities, spurious as they are, entitle people to or don't entitle people to in the world.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Alondra thank you very much.
ALONDRA NELSON: It's a pleasure to speak with you Brooke.
ALONDRA NELSON: Alondra Nelson is president of the Social Science Research Council, Professor of Sociology at Columbia University and author of The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations and Reconciliation After the Genome. Coming up. Another application of genetic research and another kind of controversy, twins. This is On The Media.