Permanent Markers: Geno-Myths

The following is an excerpt from Sarah Abel’s Permanent Markers: Race, Ancestry, and the Body after the Genome.

Over the past twenty years, DNA ancestry testing has morphed from a niche market into a booming international industry that encourages members of the public to answer difficult questions about their identity by looking to the genome. At a time of intensified interest in issues of race and racism, the burgeoning influence of corporations like AncestryDNA and 23andMe has sparked debates about the commodification of identity, the antiracist potential of genetic science, and the promises and pitfalls of using DNA as a source of “objective” knowledge about the past.

This book engages these debates by looking at the ways genomic ancestry testing has been used in Brazil and the United States to address the histories and legacies of slavery, from personal genealogical projects to collective racial politics.

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Henry Louis Gates Jr. leans one elbow against the upper balcony of the Ellis Island Immigration Museum, his body turned toward the camera. The hall below is empty, but the microphone captures the echo of the voices of hundreds of visitors who have come to pay their respects to the ancestors who disembarked here decades ago, alongside millions of other European immigrants, ready to start their new lives as U.S. citizens. In the background, a U.S. flag hangs stolidly over the quiet hall. Gates’s expression is somber as he announces to his viewers: “I envy my friends who can come here and celebrate their ancestors’ journey and trace them through the records so diligently compiled here. They can even type the name of their ancestor into a computer and access the record of the day of their arrival. Unfortunately, there is no Ellis Island for those of us who are descendants of survivors of the African slave trade.” For generations, Gates explains, African Americans have been unable to gain such information about their African ancestors, who were forcibly transported to the Americas and stripped of their histories and identities by slavery. “But what if we could trace our roots?” continues Gates. “What if we could even travel through time, across the Atlantic Ocean, and find where our ancestors came from in Africa? Now, thanks to miraculous breakthroughs in genealogy and genetics, we can begin to do just that.”

The PBS documentary miniseries African American Lives began with these lines and aired on U.S. television over the course of two weeks in February 2006. In four episodes, the Harvard professor of African American literature accompanied eight distinguished African American guests on an exploration of their family lineages, beginning with the recent history of the civil rights movement, Jim Crow segregation, and the Harlem Renaissance and traveling back in time through the Civil War to the era of chattel slavery. In the final episode, once the paper trails had been exhausted, each guest, including Gates, was presented with two sets of personalized DNA ancestry test results. The first examined their autosomal DNA (genetic material inherited from all recent direct biological ancestors), which conveyed their genomic “admixture” percentages in relation to three continental populations (“European,” “West African,” and “Native American”), a technique that Gates claimed was “turning ideas of racial purity upside down.” The second relayed the names of the African countries and, in some cases, ethnic groups to which each guest had been matched, based on analyses of their maternally inherited mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) and paternally inherited Y-chromosome DNA (Y-DNA). The show reached its climax as one guest, comedian Chris Tucker, traveled to Angola to meet a community with whom he had been genetically matched. The episode’s title, “Beyond the Middle Passage,” conveyed the symbolic significance of this knowledge. It was, according to Gates, a way to help African Americans find the identities of their ancestors, allowing them to heal the wounds of the Middle Passage and hence “to stake our claim ever more deeply within the American tradition.”

The following year, a group of Brazilian journalists working for BBC Brasil launched a special feature entitled Raízes Afro-Brasileiras (Afro-Brazilian Roots). The project was intended to explore and celebrate the history of Brazil’s African-descendant populations in commemoration of the 200-year anniversary of the abolition of the British slave trade. The content was published in two parts on a dedicated page of the BBC Brasil website. A first round of articles, published during the first week of May 2007, introduced the special feature and presented a discussion of recent historical and genetic studies into Brazil’s African heritage. Readers were also informed that nine Black Brazilian celebrities had agreed to trace their personal genetic profiles using DNA ancestry tests, and their results would be revealed, one by one, during the last week in May. Like the guests of African American Lives, each celebrity was presented with two sets of results: an estimate of their regional ancestral origins based on mtDNA and Y-DNA analyses, and a description of their genomic admixture, divided into “African,” “European,” and “Amerindian” percentages. Whereas the emotional climax of African American Lives revolved around the revelation of each guest’s African ethnic origins, Raízes Afro-Brasileiras dramatically foregrounded the contrast between the participants’ mixed genetic heritage and their assumed Black identities through headings like “Neguinho da Beija-Flor has mostly European genes,” “Result ‘wrestles’ with what I feel, says Djavan,” and “No one knows how to define me, says actress who is Black and ‘70% European.’ ”

If the format and inspiration behind these two projects were similar, their reception and impact in their respective countries was markedly different. Viewers attending an official webinar hosted by the creators of African American Lives joined TV critics in complimenting the series for its thought-provoking content on the topics of race and identity. As one viewer stated, “I thought the coolest lesson was that one’s ‘heritage’ or ‘cultural identity’ is based not on ‘race’ … but rather one’s own and others’ perceptions.” Others enquired eagerly how DNA could help them learn more about their own African origins. As the first major U.S. television program to present DNA testing as a means of tracing family histories, Gates’s formula was successful enough not only to be revived for a second season (2008) and a spin-off special (Oprah’s Roots, 2007), but to inspire an entire franchise of celebrity family history shows, the latest of which, Finding Your Roots, is currently in its seventh season. These and other successful genealogy documentary series like The Learning Channel’s Who Do You Think You Are? have helped familiarize the U.S. public with the concept of genetic ancestry testing; they also endorse the products of particular DNA-testing companies that act as sponsors and scientific consultants for these series. In turn, the rising popularity of the genre has mirrored the growth of the DNA ancestry-testing market itself: while still a cottage industry in 2006, it has since been transformed into a multimillion-dollar international market oriented toward informing customers about their unique “ethnic makeup.”


Sarah Abel is British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Cambridge’s Centre of Latin American Studies.