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The Social life of DNA

DNA and the Roles it plays in Africana Studies

The Social life of DNA by Alondra Nelson researches the role that DNA has played in the Slavery. Furthermore, Nelson explores the link between racial inequality and the use of genetic techniques. The question was whether or not the tests were increasing the ideas about racial differences negatively. Nelson’s goal was to relieve the issues that slavery has casted on African Americans. Through exploring Genetic Politics, Nelson provides us with many ways that DNA has been used and the long-standing effect it has had on the African American Culture. Many of the DNA studies conducted were applied to scenarios and reconciliation projects as well. The book includes the projects and gives an account on their outcome and impact. An example given is the African Burial Ground. Similar to the books we have read previously, Alondra Nelson has a very similar outlook on the negative impact of slavery. She reflects the negative impacts through the use of DNA testing on bones of African slaves.

Now known as the “African Burial Ground National Monument,” was found in February 1991 in New York. The ancient colonial era cemetery located in Lower Manhattan, started the process of extracting DNA and amplifying it from bones. The cemetery was deemed “Mortuary Apartheid” meaning, the bodies were segregated and placed with only Africans even after death. This project eventually led to the commercialization of DNA testing and African Ancestry. The African Burial Ground is a prime example of the injustices that the black community continues to endure, even after slavery. The local community was angered by this because while the excavation was taking. Much of the community believed there was racial prejudice due to the way the bones were treated and excavated. When being transported to Leham College where they were to be examined, the bones were thrown, not handled carefully and mistreated. Because of the mistreatment, the community was outraged which resulted in the permanent halt of the project in July 1992. This was a prime example of osteology, the scientific measurement of skeletal remains. Furthermore, by the time this process was ended 419 burials had been transported already. The burial ground contained around 15,000 intact skeletons of free an enslaved African Americans. Through civic engagement, the burial ground was memorialized. By February 2006, this important burial ground was finally memorialized.

Through DNA excavation, there are many different processes to reveal the DNA of a deceased person. The three major methods used were craniometrics analysis, dental morphology, and molecular genetic assessment. Craniometric analysis, also known as Craniometry can be known as the measurement of the cranium. Craniometric analysis can give a person information on the person being studied lived, their nutrition, and if they had any diseases. Craniometric analysis has an important role in anthropology studies. In addition, this approach offers advantages such as an easier access to skulls with no risk of bone damage and the possibility. The next method is dental morphology, this method examines the chemical traces in the grooves, cusps, and other dental aspects as well as the chemical signatures. This process can suggest origins of people, identify evolutionary relationships and relatives. Dental morphology is important to take note of because as it determines the relevance of teeth it also gives scientists a story of human evolution. The last method is known as molecular genetic assessment. This is the analyzation of DNA or RNA transcripts, techniques used include DNA sequencing, gel electrophoresis, and PCR. This technique can help researchers discover the origins of bones. All three methods were not only used in the excavation of the African Burial Ground in New York but all around the world. The methods used have reunited family members and give African Americans and Africans a look into the past and who their relatives were.

The results of these methods and this important discovery are long and well thought out. It is important to note that one of Nelson’s key interests is the mobilization of DNA analysis in American politics. Chapters 6 and 7 highlight an analysis of the role genetic evidence can play in legal situations. Furthermore, through personal interviews, Nelson reflects peoples goal to be reconnected with their ancestors or learning about their ancestry through analysis of DNA. Nelson includes a conversation with a woman named Pat who believed her heritage was located in Southwest Africa. Pat says, “I grew up with knowledge of Hottentot” (80). Her DNA results proved her to be wrong. Instead, the analysis placed her ancestors in the Southeastern Africa. At first the new-found knowledge came as a shock to her but, Pat now “admits to answering ‘Akan’ and ‘Hottentot’ interchangeably’ (84). This is another example of how DNA analysis has aided people in discovering their heritage. Of course, racial injustice in America is the main focus of Nelson. Additionally, Nelson is focused on the efforts of some to locate genetic evidence of people’s African ancestry, because of the destruction of so many transatlantic slave manifests, she notes that root-seeking, “‘is often animated by blacks’ yearnings for pre-slavery identity” (22). The social aspect of DNA is highlighted through idea that DNA is as truthful as you can get when trying to answer complex questions. Social and legal aspects of DNA analysis of African skeletons have reunited families and helped give the Africans enslaved the recognition they deserve. Nelson adds this to establish the importance of this testing and develop pathos in the reader. Through DNA testing people have been able to rediscover their heritage as well as become more in touch with it.

All in all, the discoveries that have been made from DNA have benefited the community as well as individuals greatly. Nelson focuses on how DNA analysis has helped throughout the years and provides real proof that the methods used are beneficial. Much of what Nelson writes is focused on North America but she easily allows it to be applied universally. Racial injustice is the biggest theme presented in The Social Life of DNA by Alondra Nelson. This is seen through the Burial ground discovered in New York, legal disputes, and the rediscovery of one’s heritage. Furthermore, Nelson gives an explanation as to why we use these tools as evidence for our identity and origins. The methods and uses discussed have effectively given African ancestors a voice in present day society and have helped family members learn their history and give people an idea of the repercussions of slavery. Many of the people who went to Bimbia were returning to their roots to learn more after a DNA test. Furthermore, through DNA testing, researchers were able to trace Cameroon Diasporans who were decedents of the enslaved in Bimbia and more largely Cameroon.

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