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Cassius and Archer

The boxer Cassius Marcellus Clay Junior had just won the heavyweight world championships when he joined the Nation of Islam movement and changed his name to Cassius X to highlight the unknown nature of his African name. Not long after that, he became Mohamed Ali. « Why should I keep my white slavemaster’s name visible and my black ancestors invisible, unknown, unhonored? » he wrote in The Greatest, his autobiography published in 1975.

While he says this, he is unaware of the fact that among his ancestors is Archer Alexander. Born in 1813 on a plantation in Virginia, he was sold and sent to Missouri where he met his spouse Louisa and raised ten children. In 1863, during the American Civil War, he learned that the secessionists had sabotaged a bridge which loyalists were going to cross. He then ran 8 kilometers to warn the the northern forces and potentially saved hundreds of lives.

Archer Alexander then had to go on the run and escaped slave-hunters by jumping out of a tavern window. He finally found refuge in the city of Saint-Louis under the protection of the abolitionist William Greenleaf Eliot, who made him gardner and wrote a biography about him. He was quickly joined by his wife and Nellie, one of their daughters, and in 1865 he became a free man, like all slaves in the Missouri, and lived thus until 1880.

« His last words were his thanks for being able to die free », Eliot says, and they still resonate to this day in Lincoln Park, Washington D.C. More particularly at the foot of the Emancipation Memorial. In fact, the statue which was made by Thomas Ball and was erected in 1876 represents a kneeling slave in the act of getting up a free man. The model for the statue was Archer Alexander, whose photo was sent to Abraham Lincoln by William Greenleaf Eliot.

Mohamed Ali « would have loved knowing he was connected to someone like that », according to his daughter Maryum. Unfortunately, the discovery of this connection was made after Ali’s death in 2016 – and revealed in 2018. Keith Winstead, the late boxer’s cousin, made the discovery by doing research with the biotechnology company 23andMe, which have the legendary boxer’s DNA since he participated in a campaign to fight Parkinson’s. The authenticity of the DNA samples was verified following an investigation by Jonathan Eig, Ali’s biographer.

It is not the first time that genetics have uncovered the origins of an American star. Eddy Murphy, Spike Lee and Quincy Jones have for example discovered their Cameroonian origin this way, just like thousands of their fellow citizens, some of which have decided to begin visiting their ancestral land since 2012. The exact year of Mohamed Ali’s death, the craze for DNA ancestry began.

The DNA Journey

In June 2016, a five minute long video entitled « The DNA Journey » went viral. In the video, participants are first shown prideful of who they are, or for some, in their rejection of other people and other cultures. « We are just the best », confirms a French woman. « I have a side of me that hates Turkish people » a Kurdish woman recognises before she checks herself « not people! But the government! »

After that the participants are confronted with their DNA test results, and discovering the diversity of their ancestry, revise their judgement. « This test should be compulsory », the French woman affirms, « there would be no such thing as extremism in the world if people knew their heritage like that. Who would be stupid enough to think of such a thing as a pure race? »

The answer to that question is a lot of people according to a study published by Columbia University researchers in 2014. They explain that « the reification hypothesis proposes that by emphasizing a genetic basis for race, thereby reifying race as a biological reality, the tests increase beliefs that whites and blacks are essentially different. »

«The challenge hypothesis suggests that by describing differences between racial groups as continua rather than sharp demarcations, the results produced by admixture tests break down racial categories and reduce beliefs in racial differences » they add before launching on « a nationally representative survey experiment provided clear support for the reification hypothesis. »

This is a scary result, knowing that 12 million Americans have already conducted DNA ancestry research. Almost 56% of French people want to follow suit, according to a review conducted this May by the Généanet ancestry website. 100,000 of our fellow citizens have apparently already taken action if we are to believe Guillaume de Morand, author of a book entitled « Finding your ancestors using DNA ».

Even though the French State only allows DNA tests for medical, scientific, or judicial reasons, nothing forbids French citizens from getting them done outside France. The journalist Titou Lecocq, for example, has sent a sample of her saliva to 23andMe. « And there, surprise! I found out that I belong to the K2a haplogroup and that I am… Jewish. Ah ah! I knew it! I knew that my excessive love of falafels was not innocent, that it was my molecules that were begging for their dose of chickpea balls. »

Can the journalist trust this result? That question divides experts. Bertrand Jordan, a French biologist, says the answer is yes: « It is not fake. There is probably an ashkenazi great-great-grandmother in her pedigree (which is probable but not absolutely certain). » But the British geneticist Adam Rutherford disagrees. « There isn’t a scientific method for establishing where your DNA has come from in the past. That doesn’t exist. What these tests do is show where on Earth people who share your DNA are most likely to be today. »

You are the Product

One thing is certain: ancestry research via DNA is one of the most lucrative businesses, which sometimes takes surprising shape. AncestryDNA, the American lab, and Spotify, the Swedish streaming software, have teamed up to offer users a playlist based on their Ancestry results which in turn gives them music from their countries of origin. Even though the test costs 99 USD, it hasn’t stopped over 10,000 people from applying for it according to Vineet Mehra, AncestryDNA’s executive vice-president.

Among the applicants is American Journalist Ashley Reese. Her « top ethnic region is “Cameroon, Congo, and Southern Bantu Peoples” at 26 percent, followed by Mali at 20 percent, Benin/Togo at 18 percent, England/Wales/Northern Europe at 13 percent, and Ireland/Scotland at 11 percent. » And even though she is « sorry to report that the colonizer section of [her] playlist fucking sucks », a major standout for her was «Diaraby Nene » by Malian singer Oumou Sangaré. « Wow, she writes, the motherland jumped out! »

The main issue of this type of device is more about the confidentiality of users’ personal data rather than the quality of offered playlists. Indeed, Spotify guarantees that AncestryDNA don’t give them the results, but the regions that are manually chosen by the latter do inform Spotify on this subject.

GenePlaza, a platform launched this April, are proposing to store « your genetic data and interpret it so that you can take measures in improving your lifestyle. This interpretation is done thanks to an application developed by scientists all around the world and is accessible either via smartphone or PC. »

MyHeritage announced in June that 92 million user’s data had been pirated. According to the information given by the Israeli company, all that was hacked were the user’s email addresses and passwords. But in August, 23andMe did not hesitate to give away 5 million of their user’s genetic data to GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), the British pharmaceutical company. In exchange, 23andMe earned 300 million euros. The operation, which came about at GSK’s behest, should allow the two firms to develop new treatments. In January 2015, the company had already sold 650,000 of its customers’ files to Pfizer for an unknown amount. Was Mohamed Ali’s file part of the exchange?