Materiality, Evidence, and the Reconstruction of Black American Ancestry

In Finding Your Roots, the PBS documentary we watched in class, Congressman John Lewis (a legendary warrior in the fight for Civil Rights) finds out that an ancestor of his, Carter Tobias, voted an 1867 election in America. Deeply moved by this finding, he remarks that “knowing that a member of my family registered and voted in Alabama a 100 years before I did […] is amazing. Maybe just maybe, it’s a part of my DNA, my bloodline, whatever you want to call it.”

Knowledge of one’s bloodline (often through knowledge of a specific ancestor’s specific behaviors or actions) is extremely important to many people and many communities. Though ancestry is important to people everywhere, it is sometimes most crucial for those whose identities have otherwise been submerged or even erased by a dominant historical and cultural narrative in America—marginalized racial or ethnic groups. Unfortunately, those marginalized groups often have the least clear formal geneaological records available to them in the American historical archive.

In a world in which claims about an individual’s current identity are often linked to claims about ancestry (“where they came from”) how do different communities and individuals attempt to reconstruct that ancestry based on limited information? How do we use technology to understand ourselves as authentically one thing and not another? And how do certain methods of reconstruction become authoritative while others are understood to be incomplete?, one of the biggest players in fee-for-service resources for discovering one's ancestry, entreats visitors to find out "how you became you", one of the biggest players in fee-for-service resources for discovering one’s ancestry, entreats visitors to find out “how you became you”.


For my final project, I plan to explore the historical intersections of technology, geneaology, and circulating notions of ‘authenticity’ and ‘identity’. How is identity produced at the intersection of multiple histories and technologies? I am interested in investigating this broad question through the study of the struggle for members of black diasporic communities in America to recover the kind of geneaological information that most white communities are able to recover relatively easily.

The two premises of this project are that (1) identity is a historically produced category, and (2) ways of knowing are also historically produced and authorized. The purpose of my project is to try to understand the establishment of authoritative and accepted ‘technologies’ of recovering the ancestry of black Americans, and the ways in which those technologies are imbricated with (that is, affect and are affected by) particular categories of identity that are understood to be authentic and meaningful in a contemporary sociopolitical climate. I hope that in doing so in some small way, I will contribute to existing literature on race in America, which historicizes and destabilizes the category of racial identity itself while recognizing that it is an extremely powerful category nonetheless.


In investigating these very broad themes, I plan to focus in particular on the ways in which oral history and storytelling about ancestral connections (found in a variety of aesthetic and verbal markers) has been supplanted by or supplemented with other methods of reconstructing ancestry that are 1) visually distinct and 2) considered to be more ‘stable’ or ‘reliable’ by virtue of their material inscription.

One way to do this would be to engage with some of the primary source material available in Harvard’s archive—for example, juxtaposing an oral history of a particular family’s ancestry with any other available records of that history to explore what each source might have contributed to a picture of the past.

In the present day, oral history is not widely understood to be an ‘evidence based’ method of identifying a person’s ancestral lineage ‘reliably’. Other methods—from family trees to state-based records like the census to genomic testing—are understood to be far more definitive and reliable. Yet because of the forced social dislocation of the slave diaspora and the violence of the slave archive (which codified Black American bodies and identities as commodities), oral histories and memory have been important resources for constructing Black American geneaology.

In tracing the materials about a single community, I might ask: Why do we treat different kinds of evidence so differently, and what does this have to do with the visual or numerical characteristics of that evidence? What are the limits of archives that are produced for purposes that were originally deeply dehumanizing, and what can we possibly extract from them? When and how did more ‘scientific’ methods of knowing one’s ancestry become codified over and above less ‘scientific’ methods, and what value does each come to symbolize in American society? Where does the materiality of different sources come into play?

Method and Format

In terms of presentation and format, I plan to produce a written piece that weaves in images in order to help the reader visualize the different technologies, with their particular aesthetic and material elements that help to produce authority. There are different experiences and challenges in extracting ‘data’ from the census, a family tree, or an mDNA results table, and I am interested in the ways that the visual aspects of these forms intersect with the stories we are able to tell about those who are ‘encoded’ in them in such stripped down and seemingly ‘neat’ ways. I will foreground primary materials from one case. Historical and anthropological literature will help me to better situate the historically contingent epistemic claims of the different categories of knowledge production about Black American ancestry: storytelling and family lore or oral histories, family trees, items of record from the historical archive (ie census, voting records, etc), and genetic testing (mitochondrial dna analysis).

This screen shot from the documentary “Finding Your Roots” highlights Congressman John Lewis’ ancestor Tobias Carter’s voter registration in an Alabama log from 1867.
[From PBS America’s Finding Your Roots, accessed on 10/20/2014 at  

The biggest challenge of this project will be narrowing it down sufficiently. I am not yet sure what primary materials I will be able to find, and the course of the project will be determined by the availability of these materials. It is possible that I will have to re-orient the piece as a historical survey.

Works Considered

Bender, J and Marrinan M. The Culture of Diagram. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010

Brown, V. The Reaper’s Garden: Death and Power in the World of Atlantic Slavery. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008.

Nelson, A. “The Factness of Diaspora: The Social Sources of Genetic Genealogy,” in Revisiting Race in a Genomics Age. Rutgers: Rutgers University Press, 2008

Nelson, A. “Bio Science: Genetic Ancestry Testing and the Pursuit of African Ancestry,” in Social Studies of Science. Vol 38: 2008.

Wailoo K, Nelson A, Lee C, eds. Genetics and the Unsettled Past: The Collision of DNA, Race, and History. Rutgers: Rutgers University Press, 2012.

Palmie, S. Lecture on History and Evidence, Harvard University, 3/25/14.

Porter, T. The Rise of Statistical Thinking: 1820-1900. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986.

Smallwood, S. Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from Africa to American Diaspora. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009.






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