Just Twelve Words, and the Long History of American Genealogy

The following is a guest blog post by Francesca Morgan, author of A Nation of Descendants: Politics and the Practice of Genealogy in U.S. History . A Nation of Descendants traces Americans’ fascination with tracking family lineage through three centuries. Francesca Morgan examines how specific groups throughout history grappled with finding and recording their forebears, focusing on Anglo-American white, Mormon, African American, Jewish, and Native American people. Morgan also describes how individuals and researchers use genealogy for personal and scholarly purposes, and she explores how local businesspeople, companies like Ancestry.com, and Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s Finding Your Roots series powered the commercialization and commodification of genealogy.

“I just took a DNA test/ Turns out I’m 100% that bitch.” The British singer Mina Lioness’s tweet turned meme from April 2017 proved inspirational for Lizzo, the American hip-hop singer and musician. That sentence became the first line of Lizzo’s song “Truth Hurts” about a woman’s “boy troubles,” which Lizzo released later in 2017. A sleeper hit, “Truth Hurts” slowly awoke to spend several weeks at No. 1 on music charts in 2019. Lizzo later named Lioness as a co-writer of “Truth Hurts,” amid litigation from three other songwriters who, in 2019, were claiming credit for that same lyric.

Those twelve words spoofed DNA testing and those percentages in DNA testing results that aspire to sort one into particular geographical locations or groups: in the case of Lioness’s and Lizzo’s proud lyric, “bitches.” The transatlantic quarreling and multiple lawsuits surrounding the origin of this sentence illustrate the old aphorism about each success having many mothers and fathers, while defeat is an orphan. The lyric that inspired such strife and litigation also illustrates how deeply seriously millions of people in the U.S. and other western countries have entertained the claims that purveyors of genealogy-focused DNA tests have been making. That industry originated in the U.S.

In my new book, A Nation of Descendants: Politics and the Practice of Genealogy in U.S. History, I link past and present to discuss how even the most personal of hobbies and vocations—genealogy—has also expressed the political. In their practices, over the centuries, genealogists and their clients have reached beyond individual families and surnames to inhabit broader forms of group identity. Genealogists do not only reinforce social exclusivity; they also challenge it. Spanning the late nineteenth century to the present, with particular focus on post-1945 decades, I explore in depth genealogy practices among those who identity as white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, followers of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), African Americans including Roots author Alex Haley, American Jews, and Indigenous people in the U.S. Throughout A Nation of Descendants, I explore the gross racial, gender, and class differentials that have informed the ability to document one’s forebears, and the insistence on textual evidence. I also offer long histories of genealogy for profit, for hire, and as entertainment, and anticommercial backlashes against these developments. While businesspeople catered to the client as they were, genealogy professionals specialized in instruction manuals, with the presumption that genealogy could not, should not, be self-taught. My interest in the business history of genealogy, and in genealogy-focused entertainments and tourism in the 1970s and afterward, inspired my final chapter on the emergence of the commerce in direct-to-consumer DNA testing in 1999-2000. Since then, people around the world, but mainly in the U.S. and western Europe, have purchased twenty-six million DNA tests. These sales figures, and the degree of commitment they suggest, result in a ripe target for satires like Lioness’s and Lizzo’s song lyric.

Francesca Morgan is associate professor of history at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago and author of Women and Patriotism in Jim Crow America