In a continuation of the year-long series of events the African and Afro-American Studies department has proposed to explore race and science in society, returning guest speaker Dr. Alondra Nelson analyzed the connective intricacies between the practice of genealogy and the social construct of race at the Wasserman Cinematheque last Thursday evening.

A professor of sociology and the inaugural dean of social science at Columbia University, Nelson was the first African-American to be tenured in the department of sociology at Columbia. Her interdisciplinary social science research focuses on how science frames the social structure of society with regards to personal identity and racial formation. Nelson uses this to further explore how different social groups are affected by society’s interpretation of race, ethnicity and gender. 

Nelson’s presentation, titled after her book “The Social Life of DNA,” sought to explore “how and why communities of color have been the objects of scientific scrutiny,” she said, beginning by highlighting science’s abuse of Henrietta Lacks. 

Lacks was a tobacco farmer whose immortal cancer cell line, known as HeLa Cells, were taken and researched by the U.S. Public Health Service Tuskegee Syphilis study in 1951 without the consent of her or her family. The study, which sought to record the history and effects of syphilis in African-Americans, was notorious for conducting clinical studies without their patients’ informed consent. Nelson explained that these events represented science as a space that was historically dangerous and abusive for people of color.

With this in mind, Nelson engaged further in the relationship between science and the communities of people of color and explored genetic ancestry testing in its early stages in 2003. 

Nelson explained that she became more interested in how genetic research can be used as “healing,” but also as a way “to answer questions, resolve traumas and to force conversations often in post trauma societies.” Working with a genetic ancestry company called African Ancestry, Nelson sought to use genetic information to evoke questions about “identity” as well as recognize “racial slavery” within America.   

Nelson exemplified the ways that genetic testing can be both a controversial and progressive way to bring closure to history’s interpretation of racial slavery. She explained this by examining the ethical difference between the work of Dr. Rick Kittles, an African-American geneticist at George Washington University in the early twentieth century, and the methodologies of the Metropolitan Forensic Anthropology team of Lehman College. Nelson noted the importance in the stark difference between the objectives of Lehman and Kittles, and used this difference to further identify the varying approaches in their methods. 

Upon researching a cemetery called the “Negroes Burying Ground,” a national monument in Lower Manhattan, Nelson explained that a group of activists called “Descendents of the African Burial Ground” noted that the Lehman College team, as forensic technicians, “reduced the ancestors’ social identity to merely skin color,” which “disassociates them from their particular culture and history.” 

In contrast, Nelson explained that Kittles used craniology in order to research the African Burial Ground research project in Lower Manhattan. However, Kittles simultaneously “sought to restore the knowledge of the origins and identities that were deliberately obscured in the effort to dehumanize Africans as slaves.”

Nelson’s reference to Kittles’ work served to shed light on how genetic ancestry analysis can overhaul the “prescribed identity” of African-Americans from the historical perspective of slavery to one of self-identity. Nelson regards the importance of this transition as a means to move away from the homogenous interpretation that chattel slavery, the idea that slaves were property as opposed to human beings, presented. 

She explained that chattel slavery “proposed a classification of race” which limited the available ethnic options of people of African descent. Her solution to this was to use genetic research to provide these individuals with information about their identity prior to the middle passage. Nelson explained that this self-distinction is crucial, as the historically biased stereotypes that stemmed from slavery were originated based on the interpretation of antiquity. 

By using genetic DNA Research as a catalyst for positive change, Nelson proposes that individuals from all cultures now have the ability to create their own personal narratives and identities, moving further away from the preconceived stereotypes that history forces upon society.

Nelson concluded by explaining that there is “no hard line between science and ethics,” but rather that “questions of social justice can be answered when we ask questions of morals and ethics to science.”