Wednesday, July 27, 2005

NY Times on Black Americans, DNA & Ancestry

How do you follow Homi Bhabha? Actually, I can think of several ways, but since I've reached that point in the evening when my brain has shut down (spending more than ten minutes in the bedlam that passes for the local Home Depot can have that effect), I'm pointing instead to an article from Monday's New York Times's Science section, by Amy Harmon, "Blacks Pin Hope on DNA to Fill Slavery's Gaps in Family Tree."

(Interestingly enough the piece was featured with a thumbnail on the front page of the NY Times's online site on Monday, but it's no longer listed among the articles in the Science section.)

Although I take issue with the title ("pin hopes"?) and its premise, Harmon's article offers some interesting points for thought once you dig into it, and mirrors much of what similar articles over the last few years have noted: the advances in biology and genetics, including the Human Genome Project, have provided Black Americans with much more detailed information about our ancestry and ancestral heritage, including a somewhat clearer picture of our complex geneologies. Indeed, the desire for more knowledge has convinced many of us to participate in genetic tracing studies, providing us with results we often do not foresee and may struggle to deal with. (Although I have a lot of information about my own family tree, I am curious about how test results would intersect both with some of the stories that have been passed down and with the research some cousins have done.)

The article notes that because of the lack of extensive, detailed genetic information about many African groups there are limitations to how much Black Americans participating in genetic tracing studies can learn, but scientists have been able to show, through analysis of the DNA, general regional-ethnic ancestral links. One of the article's main foci is race--and racism; some of the Black people tested have learned, or had confirmed, that they have white ancestors, which has led to personal questions about how to address this aspect of one's heritage, as well as failed connections with White "cousins" who have DNA matches yet don't want to or fear acknowledge Black kin (cf. the Jefferson-Hemings family saga). Other Black Americans have actually connected with non-Black relatives, however; one man who found an online DNA match with a White man "told him he owed reparations and could start by paying for the test."

Another result of many of the tests, according to the article, has been to give Black people who participate a greater sense of the diversity of their African ancestry and of Africa itself, as well as deeper connections with other Black people who share similar DNA results and a renewed interest in their specific ethnic-national, though distant, relatives. LaVerne Nichols Hunter, a retired Pittsburgh mathematics teacher whose DNA test showed ancestry from what is now Cameroon, Sierra Leone and Liberia, said, "Africa is not a country; it's a continent." As obvious as this statement is, it what probably is new recognition for her and probably many people, in terms of how they think about their personal, familial links not simply to the continent as a whole, but to particular groups and peoples on it.

I'm therefore very interested in seeing how the newfound senses of belonging and connection play out, in both directions, particularly as we also learn more about our various geneologies, beyond the rich lodes that historians, sociologists, anthropologists, novelists, journalists, and others have provided us in the past, about our fellow members of the African Diaspora (or to use W. D. Wright's term, "West African Extensia") across the Americas and elsewhere (Europe, the Middle East, South Asia, etc.). Were my/our ancestors North Guinean, South Guinean or Congolese, use Joseph Thornton's taxonomy, and where from within those broad categories did they come? Were they Mende, Ibo, Yoruba, Arada, Akan, Fulani, Kru, Wolof, well as English, Spanish, French, Irish, Dutch, Walloons, Cherokee, Osage, Fox, Abenaki, Seminole...who were they and where they did they come from? As my poem "Origins" concludes, "Only their true names are missing."

The article remains free online for about a week, and if you have trouble accessing it, there are always options.

No comments:

Post a Comment