Afro-Genealogy: Roots, Rooting, and Rootedness

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.

13 thoughts on “Afro-Genealogy: Roots, Rooting, and Rootedness

  1. 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?


    I so agree with the above statement. Thanks so much for this excellent commentary. Indeed, we of the Black Diaspora’s identity spans the entire world. I am going to send this essay as a link to DNA Forum.

  2. Have you read Saidiya Hartman’s Lose your Mother? I think it’s particularly pertinent when discussing African (& diasporic) roots and routes and does so in a far more nuanced manner than a number of works by pan-africanist scholars.

  3. Not yet–it’s on my long list.

    I’m still trying to figure out how to think about diaspora (which I prefer as a term) and pan-Africanism (which I still don’t quite understand). There’s some new work that treats all travels, even within Africa, as diasporas. I’m not quite on board with it, in part because it needs some conceptual re-thinking. Brent Edwards has a take on diaspora that I like–that we cannot, should not, forget its origins in Jewish history, as a historico-conceptual term.

    I think it can do more work than we give it credit for, at least in terms of forging necessary and often neglected connections between and across cultures and histories, without that terrible roots business, which I consider dangerous.

  4. I took a class last fall on the post-soul and the Hartman book was part of the course reading so my understanding of the book was mediated through my exploration of the concept. As is the idea of a “diaspora,” which I came to regard with the same skepticism as I do “pan-africanism.”

    I can appreciate your idea of necessary connections though, even though I don’t totally endorse it.

  5. I’m not sure diaspora is something with which one agrees or disagrees–I think it’s a useful way to think about history and how to make that history useful in the contemporary world. Among the many terms floating around–the black Atlantic, globalization, and cosmopolitanism, for instance–I find diaspora more useful for mapping the kind of rhizomatic relationships and chance encounters that interest me–certainly much more useful for queer studies.

    There’s a longer project to be done–being done actually–a return to the 1950s through the 1970s to re-think the importance of Pan-Africanism and diaspora, and it’s exciting, and, to my mind, much more compelling than a post-racial politics could ever be, in part or mostly because it accounts for attachment, affiliation, and allegiance, for affective connections that may not necessarily be part of a certain kind of rationality.

    But this is a whole book–and several have been written. Once I figure it all out, it will be in my book.

  6. Here is why I have a problem with the concept of a diaspora (excerpted from a paper I wrote earlier this year):

    In his definition of diaspora, scholar William Safran posits that its constituent elements include “dispersal from a homeland, often by violent forces, the making of a memory and a vision of that homeland, marginalization in the new location, a commitment to the maintenance/restoration of the homeland, and desire for return and a continuing relationship and identity with the homeland that shapes the consciousness and solidarity of the group” (Safran, 83-84). This definition, as scholar Brent Hayes Edwards points out in his essay, The Uses of Diaspora, was the motivating sentiment behind the Pan-African movement of the early 20th Century. One of the movement’s most prominent figures, W.E. DuBois, explains the driving force behind the Pan-African movement as the “intellectual understanding and co-operation among all groups of Negro descent in order to bring about at the earliest possible time the industrial and spiritual emancipation of the Negro peoples” (DuBois, 247). According to Edwards, this movement was born out of “the necessity to confront or heal that (slave) legacy through racial organization itself: through ideologies of a real or symbolic return to Africa” (46). Edward goes on to suggest that the movement was a “broad force in African American identity formation” (47) and in so doing shows the ways in which people imagined a unified identity that was dependent on a common relationship to Africa.

    Saidiya Hartman’s Lose Your Mother and Dinaw Mengestu’s The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears (another great book I would suggest if you haven’t read it already) are therefore profoundly valuable in the polemics of diasporic studies in that they complicate the idea of a conflated “African” identity (the main fallacy upon which the concept of an African diaspora largely depends on for its validation). Where previous scholarship (as in the case of DuBois and Safran) assumed that there was a nationalistic tie that bound all “negro peoples” together by virtue of some inherently shared relationship to Africa, Hartman and Mengestu effectively deconstruct this link that supposedly ties the diaspora together. In her work, Hartman argues that the simplistic reduction involved in defining a diasporic community with an identifiable kinship to “an African continental family” (Hartman, 6) is one that exists in a constructed realm dependent on the fiction of race which was “developed in the modern period and in the context of the slave trade” (Hartman, 5). Mengestu’s work, on the other hand, presents a protagonist who neither embraces nor rejects this imagined racial connection and instead chooses to occupy a third space – one that straddles this binary and acknowledges the “complexly different trajectories of the continent’s many languages and cultures.”

    Ultimately, while these texts (Hartman’s & Mengestu’s) cannot definitively do away with diaspora as a concept, they serve the function of showing that the ties that link the diaspora are not inevitable and could easily be unraveled just as they had been constructed.

    Hmm, I am not quite sure if this was the best response to yours and now I am kinda nervous that you will come back with some incredibly intelligent answer that will put me to shame.

    Also, I am intrigued by your work on the queering of the black atlantic. Tell me more! What are you reading for this? The English department at my uni hasn’t been very efficient in exposing us to this field (there are some classes offered on the black experience and even fewer on queer studies but none at all on the conjunction of the two so I am always eager to learn more).

  7. and as for this return to the ideology of the 1950s/70s I offer Milan Kundera’s musings:
    “In the sunset of dissolution, everything is illuminated by the aura of nostalgia, even the guillotine.”

    I am not surprised then that there is work being done to rethink the importance of Pan-Africanism right now – at a time when the idea of a post racial society seems closer to reality than it ever has before. I am just wary of any efforts towards this end cause I think a lot of our perceptions of “affected connections” are colored by romantic notions.

  8. Hmm, now you’re making me think.

    If you don’t mind, I’ll move this discussion offline and send you an email, as much of what I’m writing about comes from my own work and has no public life to speak of.

    I would recommend the essay by Rinaldo Walcott in Black Queer Studies, which begins to do some of the hard conceptual work that I think needs to happen to queer diaspora (I’m not sure I we can queer the black Atlantic, but that’s a longer discussion on the distinction between diaspora and the black Atlantic that needs to happen, and for which I don’t have answers yet).

    Also, on diaspora, Daniel and Jonathan (?) Boyarin have an essay, first published in Critical Inquiry, on how to conceptualize a non-heteronormative, non-kinship bound (via biology) model of diaspora. I have found it useful for my own thinking.

    Let me know if the email address in your profile is good for you.


  9. Mind if I barge in?

    “previous scholarship (as in the case of DuBois and Safran) assumed that there was a nationalistic tie that bound all “negro peoples” together by virtue of some inherently shared relationship to Africa”

    Without going into the merits of Hartman’s book, saying that DuBois used Africa to theorize diaspora (the same way Safran does it) doesn’t seem right to me. The situation is complicated by his tendency to say lots of different things but his post-Souls of Black Folk orientation towards the “darker races of the world” was explicitly not Afro-centric, and one of the things I’ve been interested to discover is how uninterested he really is in Africa itself; he’s very excited about Japan, China, Russia (all of which he sees Af-Am struggles in explicit parallels with) but his interest in Africa tends, in contrast, to be sort of pro-forma. More generally, DuBois was explicit about “Negro” not being an identity formed by DNA origin: he always emphasized his mixed-race status, but that didn’t make him less “Negro” in his own mind. As he put it, a Negro was someone who had to ride Jim Crow in Georgia. And as Keguro illustrated in reference to The Negro and Black Folk, Then and Now, when he does address Africa specifically, he’s much more interested in taking it apart as a coherent concept than in deriving it as a stable origin.

    All of which is to say–ok, I can’t resist–I find Hartman’s second book to be problematic exactly because it takes diaspora to be the key term in that book; she might problematize it, but it still is the structuring metaphor in the entire performance, if only in its absence. What makes DuBois a still vital figure for me, despite all the ways he’s aged, is the fact that his narrative of racialization doesn’t ultimately reference race as DNA origin (and significantly *not* stories about dispersal). Instead, his concept of race is always as politically constructed, an identity formed out of dialog with current political repressions, thereby drawing a line of continuity between lynching in Georgia and imperial aggression in Ethiopia or wherever.

  10. Du Bois is a fascinating character, depending on how we frame him, and I’m not sure that a developmental approach is always best–as in he begins as nationalist, becomes pan-African, and later Afro-cosmopolitan, or cosmopolitan.

    These are the Du Bois figures that need to be articulated to my mind

    A pan-Africanist Du Bois
    A diasporic Du Bois
    An intellectual Du Bois
    A cosmopolitan Du Bois

    I’m skeptical about and in fact actively against attempts to posit a “post-racial” Du Bois, whatever that figure might be.

    This needs to be a longer discussion, sorry for the brief comment here. Kenyan Internet!

  11. I agree; the worst way to think of DuBois is as a developmentalist, in several senses of that term. Firstly, to split him up into stages of his life obscures the way he gets to do so much of his most interesting stuff by repeatedly “staging” his own life, writing four or five autobiographies as a way of building a narrative density out of his disagreements with himself. Splitting him into different figures (along the lines of diasporic vs. pan-Africanist) also seems to be dangerous, except insofar as you do it the way he did, putting those different selves in dialogue with each other and trying to make sense of the conversation they have (rather than taking sides). DuBois certainly doesn’t divide himself up in that way; the whole point of the Hegelian metaphors in Souls and the Marxist metaphors in the later stuff is to find ways of integrating it all into a totality.

    But more specifically, I think DuBois would dislike a term like “post-racial” for exactly that reason: his notion of diaspora or cosmopolitan was *always* compatible in interesting ways with nationalism and race (in exactly the way so many contemporary theorists want to read those categories as oppositional). He didn’t become “diasporic” as a way of becoming less “racial,” he got interested in “pan-Africanism” as a way of articulating a different sense of what race was, a racial identity that was defined by political struggle against racialized injustice, not pretending it doesn’t exist (which is what I take “post-racial” to generally signify).

  12. I’m not yet sure I understand what “post-racial” means, and its vulgar use in the Obama press coverage has been disheartening. But that’s a whole other discussion, no?

    I don’t want the “developmental” model, but I think it’s crucial to register how Du Bois’s life and politics (the space is there, yes?) were framed and created as he met and interacted with other people. To frame him using the terms I have is to begin to think about the circles he inhabited, the people who claimed him, his attachments, so to speak.

    This is the most I’ve thought about Du Bois in a while. Good to keep my brain doing some work.

  13. DuBois is good to think with. One of my advisors once referred to the “DuBoisian footprint” in my writing, and he was exactly right: this project started to cohere for me right when I started trying to use the strange internal conversations DuBois has with himself as a lens to think about and talk about other important stuff.

    And yeah, his circles is exactly right. It’s easy to talk about the marxist Dubois’ rejection of the liberal Dubois or something like that, but it’s much more interesting and profitable, I think, to unravel his discourse by reading him through the people he was talking to (arguing against Booker T is not the same as arguing against Walter White). But I must admit I also find the classic line about Jefferson is pretty applicable to DuBois too: some of the most educated dinner conversations in his house happened when he dined alone.

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