“Are These the Bones of Blacks?” An African American Social Construction of Justice

In May of 2016, President Barack Hussein Obama, the first Black President of the United States, signed a legislative amendment banning the use of ‘Negro’ from federal documents. The amendment replaced the word Negro with ‘African-American’ and imposed other changes in nomenclature for the “modernization of terms relating to minorities.”[1] These changes speak to the social construction of racial identity, in particular, the way naming—naming oneself and being named—is a tool wielded in the present-day that sifts the residue of past trauma with an eye toward mining future social relations. In stunning detail, The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation after the Genome outlines the ways genetic technology has been used in discussions around reparations, reconciliation, and representations of African American history to do something similar. Nelson demonstrates that DNA, like nomenclature, is far from neutral, and the DNA molecule does not comprise unbiased, discrete bits of data. DNA, in fact, is meaningless outside of a social context. Nelson argues lawyers, scientists, scholars, genealogists, community organizers and activists using genetic data to correct the continued presence of slavery’s violence in financial, legal, educational and penal institutions today gave it a significant and powerful social context–DNA as a technology of justice and restitution.

In The Social Life of DNA, Nelson draws ties between a number of phenomena. From activists using genetic data to obtain information on the “Negros Buriel Ground” uncovered in Manhattan and protests which led to its commemoration as the African Burial Ground National Monument; to the formation of the genetic testing company African Ancestry by Rick Kittles, to the history of reparations from 1865 (with General William T. Sherman issuing Special Field Order #15) into the 21st-century with the court case filed in 2002 by Deadria Farmer-Paellmann and seven other plaintiffs against eighteen corporations involved in slavery or the slave trade. Nelson also explores the cultural phenomenon of the DNA “ancestry reveal” and DNA diasporas created by individuals who, after receiving their DNA tests, forged new, if complicated, affiliations with communities and countries across the African continent as a result. Each instance, layered and connected to the next, reveals much about ideas of justice and race in the United States. And nowhere can DNA be reduced to pure nodes of data. Instead, as Nelson argues, the social life of DNA is rooted in the impact of chattel slavery on the United States, and the legacy of disenfranchisement, racial inequality, and carceral violence it left behind.

Nelson’s book is part of a tradition of people of African descent troubling the nineteenth-century biological determinism of the one-drop rule and the binary between scientific and humanistic study. In 1991, the discovery of the Negros Buriel Ground in Manhattan became a moment when these challenges bore some fruit. The 1990s were an important decade for the study of slavery more broadly. Historical debates around ethnicity versus race pushed the boundaries of rudimentary understandings of blackness and identity. Scholars like Ira Berlin, David Eltis, Michael Gomez, Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, Paul Lovejoy, John Thornton and others argued that the African experience of slavery in the Americas required at least two points of analysis. First, an examination of the lives of the enslaved as dynamic, placed in time and place historical context with all of its generational ebbs and flows. Second, an immersive engagement with the experience of Africans on the continent as part of the experience of Africans arriving in the Americas and therefore crucial to understanding how Afro-Atlantic communities across the ocean formed. By 2004, the multi-episode PBS documentary, Slavery and the Making of America would premiere, outlining a history that centered Africans men, women, and children (in all of their ethnic and regional diversity and difference) as the making of the United States. A year later, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture would launch its phenomenal exhibit, catalogue book, and digital project, In Motion: The African American Migration Experience, under the direction of Howard Dodson (chairman of the Advisory Council on the African Burial Ground in 1992) and Sylviane Diouf.

Nelson’s text reminds, however, that as late as 1992, there was nothing unscientific about viewing a set of bones and determining, from shape and texture only, whether or not these were the bones of blacks—in other words, the forensic study of bones to determine skin color or race was common and privileged. Moving the excavation and the study of the 419 individuals uncovered at the Negros Buriel Ground from the Metropolitan Forensic Anthropology Team at Lehman College (CUNY) to Howard University allowed the Howard Lab to employ a different methodology. Nelson notes the change in methodology as moving from “an epistemology of racial classification to an epistemology of ethnicity (and therefore, also ancestry).” The methodology deployed used craniometric analysis, dental morphology, and molecular genetic assessment to piece together evidence of African ethnicity and historical context. Instead of destroying the site, the Howard Lab also involved historians, anthropologists, and archaeologists who could speak to the material evidence found around the bones themselves—the cardinal direction bodies were buried in, carvings on the coffins (some were determined to be West African Adinkra symbols, including the Sankofa symbol), items like buttons or cowrie shells found with the dead—and explain or explore these as potentially historical markers of African lifeways, ritual practices, and kinship rituals reappearing in the Americas and redefined by enslaved and free people of African descent.

Most important, Nelson describes this shift as occurring as a result of political organizing. Scientists from historically black Howard University’s Cobb Laboratory were concerned about the destruction of the site, which appeared to destroy contextual evidence and the bones themselves. Community activists (like Deadria Farmer-Paellmann, who organized a protest at the site to stop construction) and members of New York’s African-descended community, including descendants of those buried at the site, likewise demanded a true commemoration and accused the city of attempting to bury important history.  In The Social Life of DNA, the discovery of the Negros Buriel Ground and the creation of the African Burial Ground National Monument becomes a powerful origin story. Rick Kittles, who later founded the genetic testing company African Ancestry, worked as a geneticist on the project at the Howard Lab. Farmer-Paellmann, who would join others in suing several major corporations for reparations, was an activist in New York and helped organize stop-construction protests at the site. And history, in fact, as Nelson takes care to point out, was itself invoked as a matter of social justice. Farmer-Paellmann’s demand, “We want to be a whole people,” referred to claims on material wealth made by corporations involved in slaving as much as to histories and genealogies lost and broken by slave traders, slaveowners, and everyone who benefitted from chattel bondage. As Nelson notes, reparations activists charged genocide, and identity was being claimed as a human right.

In this, the Negros Buriel Ground forms an explanatory bridge. Genetic testing, by restoring African Americans to their past, their descendants enslaved in the United States, or their African ancestry more broadly, became a tool for social justice which also outlined the terms of what that justice entailed. Scientists, empowered with new methodologies and, then, transgressive claims about race and histories of slavery, used DNA to embolden these claims. They helped transform a cacophony of bones into the enslaved and ancestral dead. Genetic data provided researchers a clue to the time, place, and ethnicity of the enslaved. The social justice was also the extent to which the newly identified dead could be used by descendants to grieve the horrors of slavery, force businesses and public institutions to reconcile with the slaveholding past in affective and material ways through reparations, and provide descendants a sense of roots and identity understood to be lost or denied by the violence of slavery.

However, genetic testing, as noted by Nelson, is also “Janus-faced.” Databases of genetic material used for DNA testing are limited. Tests are only as accurate as their databases. But because science is constructed as neutral, hard, and determinate, using genetic data has the potential to disconnect African Americans from oral or archival family histories. It may also be wielded against reparations plaintiffs in court cases. At the same time, and it is here that Nelson demonstrates her deep care for the genealogical and DNA diaspora communities being studied, Nelson finds power and promise in the hands of individuals and communities, in the way genetic testing gives shape to African Americans’ dreams of freedom already in existence. Individuals using the kits, according to Nelson, often do combine the data received with existing or on-going work in archives or with oral family histories. African Americans, in this study, remain savvy, creative, and skeptical of hard results, instead creating diasporic affiliations in response to their “genealogical aspirations.” This is the labor of kinship, the powerful work at the heart of community formation, and part of a tradition of resistance to losing kith and kin and lineage. And in The Social Life of DNA, this creative work of making family and history with—and in spite of–the resources available is foregrounded as intellectual, scientific, and theoretical. Drawing on Jacqueline Nassy Brown, Nelson describes genetic technology as a “diasporic resource” mobilized and given shape through individuals and communities who utilize it. Whether in kits purchased from African Ancestry or in court cases filed against insurance magnates, African Americans’ creativity, hope, and active resistance against injustice shapes the social life of DNA.

In this, The Social Life of DNA is deeply committed to and accountable to those now deemed African American, to their practice of self-making and modes of resistance. This accountability makes Nelson’s beautiful and important book an example of the best kind of social justice research. It is what black studies scholarship should strive to be.


Jessica Marie Johnson is an Assistant Professor of History at John Hopkins University. Her research interests include women, gender, and sexuality in the African diaspora; histories of slavery and the slave trade; and digital history and new media and has appeared or will appear in Slavery & Abolition, The Black ScholarDebates in the Digital Humanities, and Meridians: Feminism, Race and Transnationalism. She is the author of Practicing Freedom: Black Women, Intimacy, and Kinship in New Orleans Atlantic World (University of Pennsylvania Press, under contract). She is co-editor with Dr. Mark Anthony Neal (Duke University) of Black Code: A Special Issue of the Black Scholar (2017).



[1] These changes include use of the word ‘Oriental’ to ‘Asian American’ and ‘American Indian’ to ‘Native American.’