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DNA Tracing: What's the point?

I was driving on Chestnut Street in Center City Philadelphia today when I noticed a sign posted on a bus kiosk announcing the Philadelphia Science Festival. It caught my eye because it had an image of a black woman holding a microphone as if she was standing in front of an audience, and it had a sentence with the word “nerd” in it. But, the thing that really made me slow down was the sentence in large caps at the bottom of the poster. It said, “Discovery is in your DNA".

Discovery is in your DNA. That is cotton candy to my curious mind, the same curious mind that as a nerdie graduate student I took a course in behavioral genetics hoping to find out something that none of my other courses could explain to me. But, even before taking the course I was aware of the double helix, which predates DNA. There are things your genetics or DNA can tell you that your family, or friends or neighbors can’t no matter how much family history they collectively put together in order to help you know who your people are and where you came from, to secure you in your identity as a part of a larger, extended family. Most people enjoy hearing stories about their great, grand kin. The fact is, many African American families are so broken up that there is little story to tell and thus little to no curiosity about their ancestry. What’s the point? There is something a bit disturbing about someone denying that their ancestry traces back to an African tribe in spite of the obvious physical similarities. I would argue that “knowing” it is a good thing for African Americans. It is a good thing to know who you are, where you came from. There is something that grounds you when you know. Just ask anyone who’s been adopted. This compelling argument has changed laws so that anyone can find out everything there is to know about their birth parents. Mystery solved.

Most of us accept as self evident the importance of knowing who gave birth to you. And, if you are really honest with yourself you will realize that knowing where you came from, what part of the world your great, great, great grandparents came from is also important to you. And all that information is packed in one cell of your body. There it is. It’s all there, the whole story about the specific origins of the uniqueness that is you.

Some would say that ancestry doesn’t matter, that knowing that your DNA matches that of people from a tribe that lives in a small country in Africa about the size of Delaware isn’t important in the grand scheme of things. But, think about it. How amazing is that, how wonderful is it to know, to finally know where your family lived before your great, great, great, grandmother was brought against her will to America, to have that piece of who you are revealed to you. Maybe it’s not that important when you’re trying to stretch a dollar, and maybe it is. But, one thing’s for sure there is something almost indescribable about the moment before the results of your DNA are revealed to you. And, in the next moment of discovery there is something about the way you see the world and yourself that changes forever, often for the better.


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