The “Nitty Gritty”

inside Elmina Castle, Ghana, Central region

My second and final blog post on the black genealogy study will be a bit of an update on the project so far, a discussion on some of the various challenges I’ve faced during the study, and some themes and lessons that I’ve begun to think about in preparation for my research paper and DASR conference in the fall.

My first blog post was a reflection on the inspiration and motivation behind the project, but let’s get down to the nitty gritty, shall we?

In early June, I recruited sixteen black-identified millenials between the ages of 18 and 25 to participate in this study. The participants spanned a diverse range of nationalities, ethnicities, socio-economic classes, religions, genders and sexual orientations. I sat down with each of them and asked them an array of questions pertaining to their identity, opinions on race and blackness in the current political and cultural moment in the U.S. and even asked them to make their own hypotheses about what they thought the results of their DNA tests would say.

Soon after this first round of interviews, I began the process of signing up the participants for their DNA tests. However, I quickly encountered a bit of a road block.

I found out that the FDA had recently banned “23andMe”’s self-administered DNA tests in New York state, which was the company that I had planned on using.


I, of course, received this news the day before I planned to leave for a five week-long trip to West Africa, so I had to scramble to find another option. Ultimately I decided to use’s DNA testing kit program for cost, ethics and reliability reasons.

After this slight delay, the participants were able to order their DNA tests and go through with the testing process.

While waiting for the results of the test, I began another research project in Ghana and Senegal, which added unexpected context and depth to this project. My research in West Africa centered around the slave castle tourism industry, which allowed me to think about ancestry from a completely different angle.

Inside Elmina Castle, Ghana, Central Region
Inside Elmina Castle, Ghana, Central Region

Now, about a month and a half later, most of the participants have received the results of their tests. I have returned from West Africa and have begun to conduct the post-test interviews. The results have been equal parts fascinating, rewarding, and totally unexpected.

Though the most central piece of data in this study will be the so-called “perception” (or hypotheses) of the participants’ admixture breakdown versus what their admixture “actually” is according to the DNA tests, I am interested in many, many other things. I am, for instance, interested in the ethics of DNA testing as a viable and accurate way of determining one’s racial admixture, as well as the ethics of DNA testing to determine other things like health risks and genetic conditions.

I am of also interested in the theme of oral history vs. science/technology and the sort of history that science and technology can tell us. The project is, in many ways, an oral history project in that it engages the participants to narrate what they know about their ancestries and how they feel about their identities. It is also a study on the way that new technology (DNA testing) either undermines or works in harmony with these oral histories.

Finally, the root goal of the project is to engage questions centering around race and identity in the present moment in the U.S. among a particularly important generation. How is race (specifically, blackness) felt, experienced and understood among perhaps the first-ever colorblind generation?

I am now wrapping up post-test interviews, and my goal for the coming weeks is to reflect upon, research, and compile my findings.

2 thoughts on “The “Nitty Gritty”

  1. Hey Mariah!

    I am curious about the overlap of your projects. How did your travels in Ghana and Senegal influence the way you were thinking about your ancestry project? I am particularly interested in this because I actually visited Elmina Castle when I was in Ghana about five years ago. While I was traveling with my school at the time and had no control over our itinerary, I remember the distinct thought of, “woah, this is really weird, I don’t feel like I should be here.” I also vividly remember the experience of feeling like it was a sacred, and solemn, space. Additionally, I remember many of the other members in my class being extremely disrespectful – “bored” even – and being really upset that they had so little regard for the thick history and energy of that space. From what I know of your project, I think we were directly engaging in the industry you were studying, and I would love to hear more about that from your perspective, after both of your research projects from this summer.

    Can’t wait to hear more back in NYC!


  2. Hey!
    I would love to hear more about the specifics of your post-test interviews. I think this project is really interesting and the questions you bring up about oral history vs. science / technology are great. I am curious if the people you interviewed felt they gained more from the family tree and oral histories or if they felt a stronger sense of identity from the DNA tests. I have been curious about my own genealogy but hadn’t thought about DNA testing undermining what I already know about my ancestry. I think you raise a really good question with that.
    I’m curious about how (or if) you’re planning on sharing your findings? Did you record or video any of the interviews?
    Good luck with the rest of the project and paper!

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