Cruising the aisles of a local Target store a few weeks ago, I stumbled upon a 23andMe home testing kit, set obscurely among a sundry of discounted endcap items. Priced at a steal - $25, what made the item even more oddly placed, was that unlike the lotion, vitamins, and hair essentials occupying the same shelf, the 23andMe kit had been touted as one of the most revolutionary breakthroughs in modern history. Tapped as a means of not only drawing direct and distinct lines from our present lives to genetic ancestors removed by thousands of years, DNA ancestral testing also offered a potential disclosure of hereditary disease, and thereby, the medical insight necessary to pre-treat or prevent.
The nation’s growing obsessions with genetics, genomes, DNA, environment, and predisposition, are not exactly a new phenomenon. In fact, much of our nation’s policies, whether situated within public health, education, housing or the criminal justice system, have firm foundations in the supposed strengths or weaknesses of the American gene pool. As early as 1850, Francis Galton – a cousin of Charles Darwin – began yanking at the collars of white fears by introducing the science of eugenics which theorized: 1) that not only were hair texture, eye color, and some diseases passed through DNA from parent to successive generations, but so too, were social traits like laziness, I.Q., criminality, immorality, and poverty; 2) that weeding out the unfit through incarceration in asylums or reproductive sterilizations was the only means for keeping the social purity and strength of America intact; and 3) that those with African ancestry – even the smallest amount – could be classified as genetically and socially inferior (or dysgenic) and therefore, a hazard to whiteness.
Eugenics, though disproven, scientifically bracketed Jim Crow segregation, socially promoted redlining, and emotionally crippled one segment of America into believing in their own genetic superiority. Today, eugenics continues to undergird our social engagement, public policy, and popular culture. As an historian, I see eugenics clearly in laws that criminalize 3-year-olds in the fits of tantrums by labeling them “feral,” or animalistic. Conversely, eugenics can be seen in popular television series like BBC’s cloning drama Orphan Black, in current events wherein leaders tout drug trafficking as a “race trait” among immigrants; or speak of African-Americans as the face of poverty, health crises, or poor intellect.
For geneticists, who’ve marveled at the resilience of African genes, from the earliest Matrilineal line traced through anthropology to the Biblical Eve, to the HeLa cells harvested from Henrietta Lacks, understand African DNA is anything but dysgenic. In fact, given its origins (past), resilience (present), and research-building properties (future), Black genes amount to genetic genius.
Please visit The Washington Informer newspaper to further explore your own understanding of: Who you are, to whom you belong, and the pricelessness of your DNA.
Read, Enjoy, Grow.
Dr. Shantella Sherman