Molecular Biological Ambivalences

As someone who has written rather skeptically about commercial Personal Genomic History services targeting African American consumers, what I find most remarkable about Nelson’s book is her intellectual honesty. Nelson goes to great length in demonstrating how the “master’s tools” (in this case genomic technologies and their inferential architectures) might be mobilized – not so much to dismantle the master’s house, as to rearrange its furniture. The aim in this is to enable novel forms of reckoning with past injustice and present injury, so as to achieve a measure of reconciliation. Given the unassailable discriminatory power publicly invested in genomic information (not the least in the sphere of criminal forensics!), it is perhaps only logical that the technologies productive of such information would come to be harnessed to a wide variety of projects among African Americans. Such projects range from individual attempts to restore (or create) a genealogical sense of “rootedness” and transatlantic kinship obliterated by the violence of slavery, to highly publicized ventures at setting the record straight (such as the eventual corroboration of Jefferson’s fathering at least one of Sally Hemings’s children), to public debates about commemorating the victims of slavery (e.g. in the context of New York City’s African Burial Ground), and on to innovative strategies of establishing collective legal “standing” in the case of the Reparations Movement.

But Nelson also repeatedly pulls back, aware as she is of the “Janus-faced” nature of the “ultimate” (but in themselves meaningless) “big data” that have come to inform contemporary attempts to retrieve history by molecular biological – and that is: fundamentally ahistorical – means. Does knowing Venture Smith’s genomic data tell us anything beyond – or, to rephrase the question: anything more significant – than what he himself wrote about his life? Does Nelson’s own eventual genomic “reveal” add anything to her own sense of self? The anguished tone of her description of the latter ritual (and a ritual it is, borrowing its genre conventions from – of all things – American reality TV) bespeaks both her fundamental humanistic hopes invested in, and doubts concerning, the divinatory instrument – genomic science – that appears to issue verdicts as impartial as they are notionally truthful (never mind the black boxes of “proprietary data bases”: the science behind all this is, in itself, so complex as to invite reactive enchantment on the part of its consumers, anyway).

It is this ambivalence that grows from an understanding of both the principally amoral quality of the scientific process and its possibilities for ambiguous social moralization that I most value about Nelson’s book. Nelson is fair to all of her constituents and audiences – including academic stakeholders like me or her mentor Troy Duster who expressed worries about a “backdoor to eugenics” or a reinvigoration of what Karen and Barbara Fields aptly called American “racecraft” by genomic means. But that is not to say that “racecraft” cannot be turned upon itself, at least to some degree. Not that this would be a radical move. It may be an attempt at melioration, in the spirit, perhaps, of W.E.B. DuBois’s attempts to put the – then equally novel – science of sociology in the service of resolving what was then known as America’s “Negro Problem,” or of Melville J. Herskovits’s efforts to recover black Americans’ African Past (rather than in the tradition of, say, Marcus Garvey, Frantz Fanon, Malcom X, or the Black Panther Party). As we all know, such science, sociological or anthropological, perhaps achieved little in the short run. But it arguably contributed to the protracted struggle for Civil Rights and the emergence of new forms of black political consciousness in the 1960s.

Paraphrasing Bob Marley, genomics might genuinely help some people, some of the time, especially if they are economically empowered to consume the identity goods that it offers. But it won’t help all of the people all of the time. This is yet another story. Still, given that the so-called “colorblind” racism of the early 21st century exemplifies how – as de Tocqueville had presciently argued – American racism would retreat into “customs” once purged from the law, a serious reflection on the kind of genomically driven anti-anti-essentialism that Nelson’s book exemplifies is called for at this juncture.


Stephan Palmié (Dr. Phil, University of Munich 1989; Habilitation, University of Munich 1999) is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Chicago. He is the author of Das Exil der Götter: Geschichte und Vorstellungswelt einer afrokubanischen Religion (1991), Wizards and Scientists: Explorations in Afro-Cuban Modernity and Tradition (2002), and The Cooking of History: How Not to Study Afro-Cuban Religion (2013), as well as the editor of several volumes on Caribbean and Afro-Atlantic anthropology and history.