The history of genetics as a field is steeped in eugenics and scientific racism. And yet, Nelson says that for many African Americans, DNA testing held a special appeal because many of the traditional methods of genealogy had been complicated by the history of slavery. Records disappeared. Names changed. People were trafficked across state lines. Stories were verboten because they were too traumatic. Ancestry testing offered a way of circumventing these obstacles, and airing stories that might never otherwise have come to light. “It’s an interesting story about race and genetics,” Nelson says. “When we talk about African Americans in science, it’s often a story of skepticism and distrust. But this ancestry-testing story is one of pioneering early adopters who are willing to do something different.
One such pioneer was Rick Kittles, a geneticist and cancer researcher who founded a company called African Ancestry Inc. His service provided only broad inferences about where people came from, but for many customers, that was enough. “It definitely wasn’t perfect, but many people said that if it’s a choice between no information or an inference that might be slightly off, I’ll take the inference,” Nelson says.
As tests became more precise, those inferences often proved to be unexpectedly moving. Nelson once met a group of African Americans whose DNA suggested that they had Sierra Leonean ancestry. They met for a ceremony of remembrance on the Ashley River in South Carolina, at a ferry landing where slaves were disembarked from ships and auctioned off. The actor Isaiah Washington was there. A man cast soil and stones from Sierra Leone into the river and said a prayer.
“We talk about the history of slavery in this country and it feels so abstract. But genetic ancestry testing can make it very personal,” she says. “The ceremony allowed for a social practice of healing, where people didn’t just have to sit with the knowledge. Many of the folks I talked to tell very moving stories about new relationships they began in their communities with their genetic test results.”
Nelson expands on this theme in her recent book, The Social Life of DNA. In it, she argues that DNA is more than a molecule that defines our identity; it also takes a social life beyond its influence within individual bodies. The communities that can arise from ancestry testing are a far cry from the cutesy images often used to sell ancestry tests, in which bemused people swap lederhosen for tartan. “This test was not just about identity in a narcissistic way, but about people trying to reconcile the history of slavery, and scaling up from their ancestry test to what it means for the history of the U.S.,” says Nelson.
When Nelson first looked at ancestry tests, they were mainly of interest to the 50-plus crowd. But they’re now capturing the interest of a younger demographic who are drawn to the quantified-self movement, and the power of dramatically revealing where you came from, reality TV-style. Nelson knows that power first-hand. “I didn’t want to do the test, but I thought if I was going to do it, it would be with a big reveal,” she says.