Sunday, April 10, 2016

Alondra Nelson and Root-Seekers

Among other things, Alondra Nelson's new book The Social Life of DNA introduced me to this cool, useful term "root-seekers" and "root-seeking." Root-seekers, as Nelson describes them, are those people, or genealogists, who search for information  about their familial or ethnic background. Alex Haley's Roots and the subsequent television mini-series prompted countless African Americans to begin assembling their family trees. In other words, they became root-seekers. 

The Social Life of DNA presents a variety of people who research their family histories through a variety of means, including tracing documents and records and also using genetic testing. Nelson is effectively offering a sociology of root-seekers in her book.  That leads her to different places where people engage in seeking out and celebrating their familial roots.

Each fall since 2008, I have coordinated a trip of 40 first-year, African American students to visit the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, Ohio. The museum serves as a really important educational experience for students. The Family Search Center on the fourth floor of the museum is one of our most noteworthy destinations each year. Volunteers at the center provide assistance for students interested in constructing or extending their family trees.

A student calls grandparents for assistance completing his family tree, 2012

After touring exhibits at the museum on African American and American history, slavery, and the Transatlantic Slave Trade, students are especially interested in seeking out information on their family backgrounds. Whereas the Family Search Center does not necessarily highlight genetic research, Nelson's book has now giving me new perspectives on how to think about the "social" elements that drive interests among the students in their family trees. What they experience on the first, second, and third floors of the museum intensifies their interests in the root-seeking that they do on the fourth.

Students call family members for assistance completing their family trees, 2013.

Each year, I observe the students using the computers, receiving advice from the staff, and trying to fill out information about their families. Almost always, the students get on their phones and call their grandmothers to find out additional information. "Hey grandma. I'm ok. I'm at a museum in Ohio. I was calling to ask you your mother's name and your mother's mother name?"  Or,  "Hey grandma, where did you live before you moved to Chicago?"

Students complete forms related to their family trees, 2015.

A few years back, while receiving assistance from the volunteers at the center on his immediate family history, one of my students discovered who his father was. The student had never known or seen images of his father, and somehow at the center, he figured that he would get help on searching. After pinpointing a name, he also did a search and soon found images to go along with the name. The resemblance between the man on the screen and the young man sitting at the computer bore such a resemblance that my student just stared, stunned with his mouth open. Another student, among the few gathered around, broke the silence by simply saying, "yep, that's your daddy."

Alondra Nelson's book is now leading me to think about the experiences of my students at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in a broader perspective. Their interests in their family trees, and even more, the very existence of the Family Search Center at the museum are outgrowths of these larger histories concerning the social lives of root-seeking and DNA.

Poet Marilyn Nelson and scholar Alondra Nelson on Venture Smith  
Afrofuturists, Black Panthers & Genealogists: Alondra Nelson's Multi-threaded Journeys
Reading Alondra Nelson and Colson Whitehead in 2011

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