The Racial Politics of Genetic Genealogy and the Case of the GU 272

Friday, January 5, 2018: 11:10 AM
Marriott Ballroom, Salon 3 (Marriott Wardman Park)
Alondra Nelson, Columbia University and Social Science Research Council
In 2015, Georgetown University established a Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation to explore the organization's ties to the peculiar institution. The report issued from this committee of students and faculty shone a brighter light on an historical episode already known to scholars of the period and to some in the Georgetown community: In 1838, the Jesuit stewards of Georgetown College sold 272 enslaved persons of African descent, residing in Maryland, to two purchasers in Louisiana. The transaction netted more than three million dollars in today’s currency. Rather than feeling liberated because this disgraceful history had now been brought to public notice, prominent alumnus Richard Cellini felt freighted down by enormity of the University community’s ethical debt to the descendants of enslaved men and women sold to Louisiana plantations. Cellini thought this ethical debt might begin to be repaid through identification of these descendants using genealogy and other means and founded the nonprofit Georgetown Memory Project for this purpose. Using his own resources and contributions from Georgetown alumni and members of the wider public, Cellini commissioned professional genealogists to try to locate these individuals and families using archives and vital records; complementary genetic genealogy testing was provided by Drawing insight from this “reconciliation project”—a social endeavor in which DNA analysis is put to the use of repairing past injury—this paper considers how genetics today plays a complex and even contradictory role in racial politics. How might reconciliation projects, like the case of the so-called #GU272, compel us to revisit the historical and sociological claims about the intersections of race and genetics? How can we simultaneously account for the essentialism that accompanies any use of science for and the new political possibilities that genetic genealogy might make possible?