2009-2010 Events



Mellon Seminar on

The African Diaspora, Genetics, and Genealogy



Our year-long seminar, “African Diaspora, Genetics and Genealogy,” funded by Mellon, is devoted to an exploration of the place of the new science of DNA testing in recent African diaspora scholarly and popular culture. We will focus particularly on two quite significant developments, one of which is entirely new: (1) the application of discoveries in the science of genetics to the historically vexed scholarly issue of where specifically in Africa the ancestors of particular diaspora Africans might have come from, and (2) the surprise of a popular African American interest in the issue. Both of these—the latter, especially—have led to a cottage industry of DNA testing companies targeted at African Americans promising to scientifically help them trace their roots. So in addition to our reading of scholarly publications, we will watch popular video series explaining the DNA testing process itself and its possibilities as well as tracing the genealogies of notable African Americans, for education and entertainment. There is the Takeaway Media Production’s famous Motherland series (Motherland: A Genetic Journey and Motherland: Moving On) broadcast by the BBC in 2003. Revealingly, the series is employed as a promotion by a testing company named, without irony, Roots For Real: Your Ancestry Discovered. Its website, listing costs both of film and tests, earnestly advises visitors to “[c]hoose the BBC film for a pioneering example of our DNA service.” But perhaps the most well-known series is African American Lives, made by the Harvard professor of African American Studies, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and first broadcast by the PBS in 2006; a sequel followed in 2008. Gates also recently launched a Washington Post-supported online magazine, theroot.com, linked to a genetic testing company, AfricanDna.com.  Using these materials as templates, we will critically explore the impacts of recent advances in Genetics and DNA testing on understandings of the African diaspora. In addition to the readings and screening of documentaries, we will also host lectures by prominent geneticists and anthropologists. See our program listing below

September 23, 2009—Introduction: The African Diaspora, Genetics, and Genealogy

–Idea and Problem: science, businesses, television documentaries, etc.  Oprah (Zulu), Jamie Oliver (Sudanese), etc.

–Seminar “syllabus”: Case Studies: Lemba, African Americans, Afro-British.  Readings, documentaries, March symposium.

–Introduction to Africanancestry.com

–Faculty “guinea pigs”?

–Youtube clip: The Lemba Tribe: The Never Lost Tribe of Israel

October 14, 2009—Lemba: The Black Jews of South Africa


Jon Cohen, “My Genetic Cousin, I Presume? In which a Cohen of the American variety meets his Bantu kinsman,” Slate (13 April 2000): http://www.slate.com/id/79372/

Josephine Johnston, “Case Study: The Lemba,” Developing World Bioethics 3 (2003): 109-111.

Tudor Parfitt, “Constructing Black Jews: Genetic Tests and the Lemba—The “Black Jews” of South Africa,” Developing World Bioethics 3 (2003): 112-118.

Katya Gibel Azoulay, “Not an Innocent Pursuit: The Politics of a “Jewish” Genetic Signature,” Developing World Bioethics 3 (2003): 119-126.

Max DuPreez, “The Black Jews of Africa,” in DuPreez, Of Warriors, Lovers, and Prophets: Unusual Stories From South Africa’s Past (Cape Town, 2004): 157-165.

November 11, 2009—African American Lives

Documentary Screening: African American Lives 1 and/or 2: Episode 4


Arthur Allen, “Flesh and blood and DNA: A geneticist sparks outrage with a project to help African-Americans trace their family roots,” Salon (12 May 2005) available at: http://www.salon.com/health/feature/2000/05/12/roots/

Mark D. Shriver and Rick A. Kittles, “Genetic Ancestry and the Search for Personalized Genetic Histories,” in Barbara A. Koenig, Sandra Soo-Jin Lee, and Sarah S. Richardson,” Revisiting Race in a Genomic Age (Rutgers, 2008): 201-214.

February 10, 2010—Genetic Adventures in Race and Ethnicity

Documentary Screening: Motherland: A Genetic Journey


Jonathan Leake, “DNA pioneer James Watson is blacker than he thought,” The Sunday Times (9 December 2007) available at: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/science/article3022190.ece

Charles Rotimi, “Genetic Ancestry Tracing and the African Identity: A Double Edged Sword,” Developing World Bioethics 3 (2003): 151-158.

February 10, 2010–African American Lives: Genes, Roots, and Routes

Our lively exploration of the process and impact of genetic testing for ancestry continues! We will watch excerpts from, and critically discuss, the famous documentary, African American Lives, by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. We will also reveal the results of the genetic tests done by our Circle volunteers.

March 10, 2010—Future Promises?


Fatimah Jackson and Latifah Borgelin, “The African Diaspora and Genetics,” in Tejumola Olaniyan and James Sweet, The African Diaspora and the Disciplines (Indiana University Press, 2010).

Sarah A. Tishkoff, “The Genetic Structure and History of Africans and African Americans,” Science (22 May 2009) vol. 324, no. 5930, pp. 1035-1044.

A look back at the year-long seminar and a preview of the Africa, African Diaspora, Genetics and Genealogy symposium on Friday, March 12, 2010.

March 12, 2010—Symposium: Africa, African Diaspora, Genetics, and Genealogy

Invited Guests:

Dr. Shomarka Keita
Senior Research Associate, National Human Genome Center, Howard University. Research Associate, Deptartment of Anthropology, Smithsonian Institute

Dr. Michael Campbell
Postdoctoral Researcher, Tishkoff Lab, University of Pennsylvania

Dr. Fatimah Jackson
Professor and Director of Institute of African-American Research, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill


Some of the Seminar members volunteered to do genetic testing for ancestry, to very revealing results. We will incorporated this important practical experience into our deliberations.

More information

ADAWRC website: http://africa.wisc.edu/diaspora/

Symposium site: http://africa.wisc.edu/diaspora/2009-2010/Speakers.html

Tejumola Olaniyan

Jim Sweet

Keisha Lindsay