I was very eager to read The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations and Reconciliation After the Genome. I requested it from the library several months ago and have waited impatiently for my hold request to rise to the top. I am interested in genetics and the socio-political implications of DNA research and testing. I also endeavor to be an ally in the struggle against racism. I am aware of the troublesome history of science being exploited and misused to further racist agendas from Charles Murray’s infamous The Bell Curve to the 2014 publication of A Troublesome Inheritance by Nicholas Wade, a piece of work so egregious it was denounced by the very geneticists he uses to support his assertion that natural selection has led to worldwide racial difference in IQ, political stability, and economic advancements.

Alondra Nelson has a very disciplined framework for The Social Life of DNA. She writes about the history of ethnic genotyping through research mitochondrial DNA (maternal) and Y-chromosome DNA *paternal” and some of the ambiguities that arise. For example, the African DNA samples come from where people are living today in Africa, not where they may have lived in the 17th,18th, and 19th centuries. The entire database of African DNA identifies about 250 tribal groups in total, but one country may have that many tribal groups, so it is more general than precise. There are often bitter discoveries, too, since many find significant European ancestry, a genetic witness to the frequent rape of black women by their slaveowners.

Nelson also looks at how DNA has been used around the world in reconciliation projects such as restoring the stolen children of Argentina to their grandparents and their biological families. DNA has also been used in seeking reparations. Some of the most interesting chapters of the book detail the history, the research and legal strategies of more than 100 years of seeking reparations for the crimes of slavery. The suits against the insurance and banking companies that profited as supporting industries of slavery by insuring slave ships and slaves and lending money for loan purchases are fascinating even though stymied by sovereign immunity and the ridiculous requirement that plaintiffs prove a direct descent from individual slaves insured by these companies knowing full well that censuses did not names slaves in the census records.

Another interesting section looked at the current movement of reconciliation through DNA testing to find one’s ethnic affiliation in Africa, to travel and connect with “kin” and form bonds. Some people, like the actor Isaiah Washington, have even applied for and been granted dual citizenship as  many countries will award dual citizenship based on DNA evidence that African Americans are children of this most consequential involuntary diaspora. Nelson suggests it is possible that this growing interest in returning to the motherland may arise out of disappointment with the retrenchment of civil rights advancements and the frustration of the reparations movement.

Nelson appears well aware than writing about race and genetics is fraught with peril. Adding reparations and reconciliation to the mix just adds more potential for controversy, so she is exceedingly careful to maintain a strict academic tone. This made the book a bit of a chore. For example, when a woman gets her test results back indicating that her ethnic African heritage most likely comes from Sierra Leone and Liberia. Before heading off to Africa, she wants to do a little more digging, to see if she can get a little further back in America before she goes. She seems more interested in Sierra Leone because her late brother-in-law was from there. Except, that is not how Nelson tells us this. Instead, she writes “Her intentions to engage in practices motivated by the findings she received from African Ancestry after she advanced with her conventional genealogy underscores the interpretive work that commences following the receipt of genetic genealogy results. This more deliberative process can involve root-seekers’ efforts to align the DNA analysis with other information about their ancestry as well as with their expectations, prior expectations or existing relationships.” It is a hard slog, I tell you.


This is unfortunate, because there are moments when Nelson writes passionately and then her prose is beautiful and moving. Those moments are few, but I still think the book is worth the effort. The history is interesting and America needs to understand its history. Reconciliation cannot happen in ignorance. I think this is an important book. I would have rated this book higher if it were not, on occasion, quite so tediously detailed, for example, listing the locations of one organization’s conferences over several years, detailing the city, country and year for all of them. My eyes glossed over and I got lost in detail. I wanted more forest, fewer trees.

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