Friday, January 15, 2016

Afrofuturists, Black Panthers & Genealogists: Alondra Nelson's Multi-threaded Journeys

Not long ago it seems, I was signing on to Alondra Nelson's AfroFuturism list serv. That was back in 2000, and I was trying to piece together this whole framework and community for thinking about the intersections of race and technology. A little later, I was reading Nelson's Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Right Against Medical Discrimination and becoming far more aware of how the Panthers were immersed in health activism. 

Now, I've just started reading her newest book, The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation after the Genome. I've heard her mention bits and pieces of this new project over the years, so I'm looking forward to delving in even further. It turns out, I've learned from the initial reading, that Nelson was working on this project for more than 10 years. In 2003, she became captivated by mentions of "DNA testing that promised to help blacks trace their roots," and during the subsequent years, she began attending "gatherings of genealogists" and pursuing the research that would result in this book.

Hold up? 2003? That means, she was simultaneously producing projects on Afrofuturism, Black Panther health activism, and genealogy. She was clearly on some exciting multi-thread journeys. But then, in some ways, I suppose we could think of Body and Soul and The Social Life of DNA as kinds of Afrofuturist projects.  

I viewed her treatment of the health activism of the Back Panthers as a popular scholarly work. Interestingly enough, her latest work might be even more so. What is becoming more apparent to me as I'm reading The Social Life of DNA is just how widespread these conversations about genetic genealogy testing have been and are. Nelson reveals that her research took her to "meetings at churches, libraries, and universities" and to expansive fieldwork and interviews. In short, a wide, diverse range of black folks are interested in root-seeking.       

The Social Life of DNA will give me an opportunity to learn more about this "extraordinary, uncharted arena of twenty-first-century racial politics."

Reading Alondra Nelson and Colson Whitehead in 2011

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