Genetics now part of reconciliation conversation

Nelson talks about finding identity in genealogy

Samantha Ledbetter | The Falcon Alondra Nelson speaks during the 15th annual Day of Common Learning on Wednesday, Oct. 26.

Samantha Ledbetter | The Falcon
Alondra Nelson speaks during the 15th annual Day of Common Learning on Wednesday, Oct. 26.

In the mid-to-late 1700s, Venture Smith was brought to America, sold into slavery and eventually bought out in what is now a well-known story.

His descendants, despite having more information than most have about their slave ancestors, wanted to know more and set out on a journey in 2006.

They dug up his grave with the hope of finding enough DNA to run tests, but they came up short. The remains were too far decomposed for any viable information to be gained, however, Smith’s family still wanted this process to help others.

For descendants of African American slaves, finding their identity is key to healing the pain previously inflicted on their family, according to Dean of Social Science at Columbia University Alondra Nelson.

During SPU’s 15th annual Day of Common Learning keynote, Nelson recalled the moment in which two leaders discussed an attempt to use genetic analysis to link civil rights struggles around race and identity.

The focus of Nelson’s talk in Royal Brougham on the morning of Oct. 26 was how African Americans can find their identity through genealogy testing.

“In 2003 I thought I was doing a kind of simple project on the emergence of a new industry in genetic ancestry testing and what that meant for people’s identities,” she said. But this “simple project” has led her on a 12-year journey.

So, while Venture Smith permanently rests in Connecticut, his narrative continues to be the most extensive from a slave. His story includes memories from the first six and a half years of his life before he was captured.

“What I hoped for is for this to bring healing to the nation, not just the family,” Nelson said, quoting an eighth generation descendant of Smith’s at the time of learning no new information could be gleaned.

In lower Manhattan lies the African Burial Ground Project, a site that was under construction for a new federal building when human remains were found.

Samantha Ledbetter | The Falcon The audience sits in Royal Brougham during Alondra Nelson's keynote address.

Samantha Ledbetter | The Falcon
The audience sits in Royal Brougham during Alondra Nelson’s keynote address.

“There was some historical research that had suggested that this research project might be near a burial ground but people sort of thought ‘oh, well, not really, we’re going to carry on with construction,’” Nelson said.

These human remains quickly revealed themselves as African Americans, likely slaves, and the construction site became an excavation site.

“Members of the local community … rejected forms of research that they thought would reduce their ancestors to social identity as skin color,” Nelson said.

People were worried that excavating these gravesites would not provide any new information outside of revealing their skin color, which could already be inferred.

African Burial Ground Project Research Director Michael Blakey’s analysis techniques allowed “a move from racialization that occurred during the middle passage,” Nelson said.

Racialization happened when slaves came to America and were grouped into the title of African Americans instead of grouping them by their respective country.

This undoing of racialization allowed African Americans be equal to, for example, Irish Americans in that they now knew their country of origin, according to Nelson.

Joshua McBrayer, Program Coordinator for the Center for Biblical and Theological Education at SPU has recently been looking into tracing his own genealogy.

McBrayer found Nelson’s speech “fascinating” and said it was “interesting to see what she talked about [in relation to] social implications” of this testing.

Previously, McBrayer had not thought about what the results of discovering one’s genealogy could mean for one’s life or the healing process.

Part of Nelson’s work includes following up with people who discover their ancestry in the months after the original reveal. She said that her job is unique in that she doesn’t cut ties after the initial, yet expected, surprise wears off.

“Some of these accounts were not dissimilar from those you might be familiar with if you watch any of these genetic genealogy television shows,” Nelson said.

Nelson also recognized that as the people mentally processed their test results, those results “caused them to think differently about their identities and their families.”

“[Nelson’s keynote] sheds new light on why African Americans would try to find where they’re from,” first year Geoffrey Lui said, noting Nelson’s first-hand research experience as invaluable.

Some African Americans that have discovered the country their ancestors came from have gone as far as receiving dual citizenship.

As Nelson pointed out, dual citizenship isn’t uncommon, but for Isaiah Washington, who had just recently discovered his Sierra Leonean heritage, that Sierra Leonean passport meant everything to him.

Quoting Washington four months after receiving dual citizenship, Nelson said, “I carry it with me everywhere, I feel like it’s my freedom papers.”

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