In Michael Twitty’s The Cooking Gene, the culinary historian attempts to patch together his family line. As for millions of other African-Americans, the task isn’t easy because of the purposeful erasure of the lives of those who were enslaved.
Mr. Twitty digs deep, then takes the tiniest of clues to a professional genealogist. He convinces family members to take commercial DNA tests, and does so himself. More than one, because none are completely reliable.
And even as his inner turmoil is partially soothed by the names and lineages he comes across, he’s careful to say that many of his conclusions – about what parts of Africa his ancestors came from, or whether he’s descended from Spanish Moors – can never be fully proved.
If only Elizabeth Warren would admit the same.
This week, the U.S. senator released a slick video with the results of her own DNA test. As the camera scrolls over faded photos, Ms. Warren recounts that her paternal grandparents disapproved of her mother’s rumoured Native American ancestry.
Then, a Stanford University genetics professor and adviser for Ancestry.com and 23andMe analyzes her test. There’s no doubt, he says, that she is between one-64th and one-1024th Native American. The number seems laughable, but Indigenous people don’t think it’s funny.
They had enough of this ages ago: It was 2012 when the Boston Herald reported that the senator had been considered Native American when she was a faculty member at Harvard University. Ms. Warren first denied listing herself as a “minority professor," or ever saying that she was Cherokee. Then, after Republicans accused her of lying to benefit from inclusive hiring campaigns, she said she just wanted to “meet people" based on her family history.
This week’s reveal was also about Republicans, who continue to mock her. When Senator Lindsey Graham announced he was taking a test to see if his own rumoured Cherokee ancestry could “beat" Ms. Warren’s, it proved a point made by Kim TallBear: This whole situation is about “settler state electoral politics," and nothing else.
Ms. TallBear received so many requests to speak about Ms. Warren that she put out a news release. She’s the Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Peoples, Technoscience and Environment, and her work has long focused on the place of DNA in determining Indigenous belonging.
Put simply, the American and Canadian governments prioritize bloodlines and percentages, in order to reduce the number of people whose Indigenous rights they must respect. But Indigenous communities “do not use genetic ancestry tests, but other forms of biological and political relationships to define our citizenries,” Ms. Tallbear wrote.
"Cherokee” is neither a racial nor a genetic term: It’s a nation, which decides citizenship based on its own customs and laws. In his own statement, the secretary of state for the Cherokee Nation said Ms. Warren’s use of DNA undermines tribal governments, which are in constant battle with the United States for sovereignty.
“Native American” is a race, of sorts – an umbrella term that has more to do with the views of larger society than the people it supposedly refers to. And race has never been about genetics. They’re two separate things. One is a social construct based mainly on how we look. The other is science.
“You couldn’t look at someone’s DNA and get their race,” said Arjumand Siddiqi, who studies public health at the University of Toronto. About 99.9 per cent of human genes are shared, “and the ones that define how much melanin we have and so on and so forth are a very small part of our genetic load," she said in an interview.
It is true, Dr. Siddiqi says, that “the way we look often reflects our geographic origin, and sometimes there’s an overlap between our geographic origin and what resonates as race."
But not always – for a good time, watch the video of white supremacist Craig Cobb getting DNA test results that show him as 14 per cent sub-Saharan African. Afterward, Mr. Cobb’s former friends spray-painted anti-black slogans on his home, further proving that race is a fluid concept rooted firmly in power.
Researchers say white people are often stymied by DNA results, especially when, as with Ms. Warren, they’re anticipating the existence of an exotic ancestor. Disproving family lore can mean losing the “colour capital” of claiming another culture, as well as having to face the reality of their privilege.
Racialized people are more likely to take it all in stride: Ms. Siddiqi has a black friend whose DNA test showed fewer than 20 per cent African genes, and is now jokingly on the hunt for somebody "less black than me.” Many already assume their genetic makeup is mixed, and most believe that community goes far beyond biology.
To understand his ancestors' lives, Mr. Twitty painstakingly recreates historical kitchens on former plantations, then cooks their food, often for all-white audiences. His DNA matters to him, but not more than the time and honest effort that lead to genuine belonging.
Ms. Warren’s purposeful ignorance, on the other hand, is far more telling than one-1024th of her blood.