I am rethinking utilizing DNA kits to pinpoint my African heritage. Perhaps so should you.
After 40 years of investigation, Sacramento authorities believe they have The Golden State Killer, a serial rapist and killer in custody. Joseph James DeAngelo, 72, is allegedly responsible for 12 deaths and 50 rapes. A key piece of evidence—DNA— led to his capture. How did they make the match? Not with his direct DNA but that of a relative using a DNA kit. The Los Angeles Times reports the DNA used was from GEDmatch.com, a free open-source kit. The accused former police officer also recently lost a bid to stop prosecutors from collecting more of his DNA for evidence.
I have exhausted public records to build my family tree, tracing my family roots to enslaved Africans in South Carolina, Kentucky, Louisiana and a plantation in Arkansas.
The next step seems to be taking two DNA tests, one for African ancestry and the other for European ancestry.
At a recent art exhibition opening, a friend from Louisiana shared that he was further in his journey. He had taken the tests, discovered hundreds of distant relatives, and was contacted by an aunt he didn’t know he had. He had already made a trip to Los Angeles to visit his newfound family.
I was thrilled for him.
I thought about the possibilities for me. I know during the Black Migration my family made new roots in Detroit, Los Angeles and Oakland. Through public records I know they married and had children, but after two generations the familial lines disappeared as family members died and memories along with those names were lost.
As part of the process of tracking my lineage, more than a month ago I asked a male cousin living in Florida to take a DNA test to solve a 66 year-old mystery. My second cousin, PFC Jessie Morrison, was a U.S. Marine and allegedly served in the Korean War. His mother died believing he was killed under mysterious circumstances on a base in Alabama never making it to Korea. In my research I found military documents that he died December 27, 1952 in Korea, but his body was never recovered. He received several honors —the Purple Heart, a Combat Ribbon, and the Korean Service Medal.
PFC Morrison, along with more than 8,000 other US soldiers missing in action, are memorialized at the Courts of the Missing at the Honolulu Memorial. Last year, a nonprofit organization in Dallas, the Korean War Project, announced the recovery of remains and needed the help of families to identify them. This DNA project could heal wounds for our family. Was he killed in Alabama or did he make it to Korea?
After the news announced how DeAngelo was captured, I sent an FYI to my cousin with the news story attached. This is about consent—and not just mine.
Is my need for familial connections here and in Africa placing future generations of my family under a contract that I have no right to agree to?
As an African American, the potential abuse by law enforcement is not my only concern. Our bodies have been exploited without our consent or knowledge for as long as we have been in this country.
While a patient at The Johns Hopkins University Hospital, Henrietta Lacks’ cancerous cervical tumors were taken without her knowledge or consent. Author, Rebecca Skloot covers these bioethical issues in her book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and in the acclaimed 2017 television movie starring Oprah Winfrey. Parts of Lacks still live 67 years after her death in 1951 via the HeLa cells named for her. Cosmetics and pharmaceutical companies, and the military have all performed tests on the HeLa cells. Treatments for hemophiliac, Parkinson’s disease, influenza and the polio vaccine have benefited from the HeLa cells.
In 1932, Associated Press reporter Jean Heller, revealed 600 Black men were part of the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male. Not only did they not consent to the study, but the men weren’t treated for the STD. A history of the study provided by the CDC discloses that as a result of a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of the study’s participants and their families, a $10 million out-of-court settlement was reached. The U.S. government promised to give lifetime medical benefits and burial services to all living participants. Currently, 12 offspring are receiving benefits.
Activist Fannie Lou Hamer was given what is known as a “Mississippi Appendectomy.” She entered the hospital for minor surgery, but unknowingly had a hysterectomy. In 2011, ABC News reported that 65,000 Americans were sterilized through federally-funded forced sterilization programs that targeted people of color, the mentally and physically challenged, and the poor.
DeAngelo’s arrest will provide many families and rape survivors with justice. I understand. As a survivor of child sexual trauma I want them to have justice. The Joyful Heart Foundation, founded by activist Mariska Hargitay, has found 225,000 untested rape kits. Thousands of rapists are still free, yet to be discovered.
But justice is not equitably applied in this country. There is too much at risk.
I have decided to wait on using the DNA kits. I want to see how the private DNA kit companies respond to the Golden State Killer case. In the meantime. I will ask the private companies whose DNA kits I planned to use how far they are willing to protect my privacy and yours. We need to know if insurance and pharmaceutical companies can gain access to DNA info. If an insurance company were to find a disease within my family, would they inform us or deny us all insurance? If there is a common trait among family members will they be tracked for future generations without their knowledge?
My cousin is moving forward with the DNA testing in hopes of finding the remains of our cousin PFC Jessie Morrison as well as to determine if he died in Korea. This means at least 12.5 percent of my DNA that I share with my cousin will reside in a database, according to 23andme.com.
He made a decision I am not yet comfortable making.
Cassandra Porter is the founder @OptimismbyFire, celebrating black philanthropy and optimism. She is a Public Voices Fellow through The OpEd Project.