I was first introduced to author Libby Copeland when I got an email from my local public library last month that listed a webinar that was a "Meet-the-Author"-type program. The description of the event piqued my interest as she was going to be discussing and answering questions about her recent book, The Lost Family: How DNA Testing is Upending Who We Are. As someone who is fascinated by DNA, I signed up right then and there.
Part of the reason I was so interested in the program is because, as a genealogist, DNA is becoming more and more integral to my work. On a personal level, I spit in the tube and sent it to Ancestry.com several years ago (mostly to see if the ethnicity I had been told I was actually was correct). I didn't expect any surprises and none were found. Since then, professionally, I have learned so much more about DNA, the several types of tests, the various testing companies, and the different online tools that can help decipher the results. Along the way, I have had the privilege of helping folks find unknown parents using DNA, which is extremely exciting and rewarding.
Copeland's book (which I received for my birthday a couple of weeks ago and haven't had a chance yet to read), weaves the story of a woman who received surprises when she got her DNA results back with an analysis of the landscape of DNA and other genetic testing along with its ramifications. The reason I am writing this post today, instead of waiting to do a book review once I have actually read the book, is that Libby Copeland has an opinion piece about DNA in today's New York Times. (There is a link to the piece at the end of this post and sincere apologies if you find that it is behind a paywall if you don't subscribe to the Times).
In that piece titled, "American's Brutal Racial History is Written All Over Our Genes," Copeland asserts that there is an interesting confluence of America's current debate about race and what she calls the "technological phenomenon" of at-home DNA kits and other genetic tests. She offers that coupled with that confluence, is the fact that many, many folks are spitting into a tube for myriad reasons not expecting to find out that their ancestry isn't actually what they thought it was.
Copeland cites a 23andMe study from 2015 that found "that close to 4 percent of the company's customers who identified as white Americans had at least 1 percent African ancestry, consistent with an African ancestor within the last 11 generations or so." One Black woman that Copeland interviewed for the piece tested with Ancestry knowing she "is descended from a white slave owner and an enslaved woman." After testing, she was able to reach out to a White cousin who is also descended from that slave owner. This Black women aptly told Copeland, "I feel like it's a little but more awkward for her because she hadn't known about us."
Copeland also discusses another 23andMe study, conducted more recently, that found that "while the majority of enslaved people brought to the Americas were male...enslaved women had a disproportionate impact on the gene pool of their descendants, evidence of the systemic rape and sexual exploitation of enslaved Black women." (I wanted to use the direct quote from the piece as I didn't want the power of that statement to be lost in my translation if it.)
As a genealogist, I was happy to see that Copeland also noted that identity and DNA are not one in the same. She discusses the work of a sociologist who asserts that "for a variety of reasons, including the ways in which we're shaped by community, family and personal experience, DNA and identity are not the same." My DNA is a piece of who I am, but it is not the whole. Genealogy research illuminates the difference while also showing how DNA fits into the whole of the identity.
Overall, the most powerful part of the piece for me is Copeland's take-away from her extensive reviews of the available research as well as interviews with folks who have tested and found surprises. She says, "genetic revelations can inspire journeys of self-discovery, helping people rewrite their understandings not only of their families but of their orientations as Americans." The reason I wanted to do this post (which I realize is quite different from what I have posted to-date and not in any way intended to be political), is that this piece speaks to me as a woman, a White Southerner, an American, a genealogist, and ultimately, a member of the human race, who is trying very hard with my work to help folks grow in their understanding of who they are, where they came from, and what that means today. As Copeland closes the piece she says, "the past is still with us -- inside of us -- for anyone who cares to look." We all need to care and we all need to look. That is truly my passion as a genealogist and a journey which I am on every day.