The purpose of history, guided by genealogy, is not to discover the roots of our identity, but to commit itself to its dissipation. It does not seek to define our unique threshold of emergence, the homeland to which our metaphysicians promise a return; it seeks to make visible all those discontinuities that cross us.
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If genealogy in its own right gives rise to questions concerning our native land, native language, or the laws that govern us, its intention is to reveal the heterogeneous systems which, masked by the self, inhibit the formation of any form of identity.
-Michel Foucault, “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History”
To root oneself is not the same as rooting around for something: one suggests fixing the other unearthing, both suggest ways of being in the world. One mode stakes a claim, the other claims a stake. Combined, both enact the complicated dance of all genealogical undertakings: to arrive where one might already have been, with each new arrival overwriting any sense of having already been there. One arrives to find that one used to be there, and is not. This, then, is not re-discovery. Time is not so generous as to allow a rewind, despite our technology.
But to arrive again, like for the first time, is also to find traces of having been there: one feels the strangeness of the tantalizingly distant familiar. This sense might not be the undoing that Foucault seeks—and, in truth, I find myself not very interested in arguing against “identity,” though I have in the past. “Identity” names, misnames, negotiates, and re-negotiates multiple, differently constituted attachments, and we have yet to exhaust how these attachments are and mean.
This post, though, arises out of another concern: the use of DNA testing to pursue genealogical paths.
In 1915, W.E.B. Du Bois published The Negro, a short transnational history of blackness that he would later expand in his 1939 Black Folk, Then and Now. Demonstrating Franz Boas’s influence, Du Bois opens with the provocative claim that Africa has always been a place of crossed bloods. He extends Boas’s critique of racial purity in Euro-America and posits that Africa arises from similarly complex crossings across race and ethnicity. Here, what is startling and still to be explained is that Du Bois takes inter-ethnic crossing to be as identity-constituting and identity-fracturing as inter-racial crossing.
There is much more to be said about this particular conceptual and re-historicizing strategy, especially if we contrast Du Bois’s stance to that of E.W. Blyden and Marcus Garvey, both of whom imposed a model of racial homogeneity onto ethno-diversity, flattening important differences among various African peoples.
The promise of DNA testing for many Afro-diasporic peoples is that it might reveal where their ancestors may once have lived and loved, have traveled and married. DNA roots—plants and searches.
To my mind, such research tells us more about movement and travel. It tells a contingent story: at this moment, in this year, this individual was in this place. And in telling such a story it opens up narrative possibilities. How did this person come to be in this place at this particular time? What kind of life situation allowed this person to travel to this place? To live in this place? To love in this place? To be captured in this place?
Rather than fixing in place, DNA histories might give us insight into the contingent practices of community formation and re-formation: siblings who traveled together and apart to form unique and related family groups; ethno-groupings that are occasional, disrupted, disruptive.
What might the Afro-diasporic critique of identity (Gilroy, Gates, Carby) offer to continental Africans?
We might discover ourselves as Africans, more continental, more multi-ethnic, less rooted than we imagine ourselves. As we foreground histories lived as migrants and nomads, traders and hustlers, as bride-kidnappers and husband-exchangers, as polyamorous and poly-ethnic, we enrich what we take be idiosyncratically specific (I am x from y) by enlarging possibilities.
In such a scenario, Afro-diasporic researches into and complications of identity have much to teach complacent Africans about our own forms of diversity, about the historically situated aspect of how we have come to be specific, and the stories of how we have always been more diverse than we imagine or claim.
We risk being Legion.
DNA histories might allow us to root differently, with urgency and care, pleasure and possibility.