Postdoc Temi Odumosu outlines EUROTAST’s early goals and thematic question for an introductory article on the Critical Investigations into Humantirianism in African (CIHA) blog. The full text is also reproduced here:
The Search for African Ancestral Origins Under the Shadow of the Transatlantic Slave Trade
By Dr Temi Odumosu
Introduction: Identity questions
“Who do you think you are?” This is a question that preoccupies many of us at some point in our lives, where we often pause for a moment to think about the stories, characteristics, culture and ideals that have been passed down to us through time, space and DNA.
The question is also the name of a syndicated television programme dedicated to following celebrities and familiar personalities on their quest to find ancestral connections. The point of this series is to challenge our perceptions of people we think we know well: The actress Sarah Jessica Parker finds links to the Salem witch trials; London’s mayor Boris Jonson finds out he has Turkish ancestors that belie his blonde disposition. The concept of identity emerges, always, as fluid and complex – revealing generally that we are not always what we believe.
For the few famous faces of African descent – Spike Lee, Lionel Richie, UK’s TV Chef Ainsley Harriott – those stories inevitably lead back to the same torrid story of the transatlantic slave trade in North America, South America or the Caribbean. It is a poignant and sad reality of African identity in the Americas that ancestral histories coalesce in a period of dehumanisation and shared brutality, where identity was stripped to its bare essentials: Age, Sex, build, state of health.
Without the context of wider familial connections beyond those that can be identified in rare archives, or which may have been passed down orally from one generation to another, African identity in the transatlantic Diaspora continues to be an overwhelming quagmire, drawing its strength from cultures that have been re-constructed with fragments, whispers, spirit and memory into a rich and vibrant jambalaya.
Yet the question of African origins and histories, beyond the sea and the slave ships, continues to be voiced by Diaspora communities; and it is now a key research theme for a new EU project I am working on called EUROTAST.
EUROTAST: new research on African ancestral ties
EUROTAST is a Marie Curie Actions Initial Training Network (ITN), convened to support a new generation of PhD and postdoctoral researchers to explore the history and legacies of the transatlantic slave trade across multiple academic disciplines.
This pan-European partnership of leading scientists, archaeologists and historians will work with a new group of international scholars on projects, which seek to break new ground by addressing, in particular, questions around the ancestral origins of African descendant communities in former slave colonies, through genetics; and building a more detailed picture of life under inhumane conditions, through archaeological explorations of enslaved African health, physical trauma and nutrition.
The network’s unprecedented focus on genetics and bioarchaeology to answer questions about origins and health is critical and timely at a moment where genetics in general is beginning to reveal localised health issues in African-American and Afro-Caribbean communities. These conditions – hypertension, stroke, prostrate cancer – appear to draw their roots from the fracturing effects and traumas of the transatlantic slave trade. This history, indeed, continues to live as a recurring biological reality.
EUROTAST research in this area therefore seeks to interrogate the picture of ancestral origins that can be collaboratively built using archival records, forensic analysis of ancient bone samples, and contemporary genetic data. The network is also developing new approaches for working with African genetic data by using advanced sequencing technologies that allow researchers to work on a genome-wide level on historical individuals who show a less mixed, and therefore clearer, genetic picture. This shift means that rather than looking at abstract words from a page (fragments of DNA), we can finally piece together the entire book – the genomic story.
Consequently this research will further investigate whether it is possible to provide a more nuanced picture of ancestral ties for modern African descendant peoples, beyond ethnic groupings primarily linked to trading ports of enslaved departure.
Exploring and Communicating Legacies
The EUROTAST focus on genetic research will inevitably enrich the work of network historians, who will concern themselves with questions about the legacies of the transatlantic slave trade. They are exploring the ways in which African and African descendant cultural identities have been radically altered by this history, and will interrogate how these transatlantic communities mediate racialised notions of “authenticity”, community and belonging in the 21st century.
Although the development of pioneering research and critical scholarship is a core aim of the project, EUROTAST also seeks to encourage public engagement with its research themes. My work, as one of the network’s two successive postdoctoral fellows, will be to translate our research into human stories, that allow us all to navigate and connect with the complexity of both the science and the history. Additionally we are encouraging synergetic links and partnerships for our work, and will facilitate outreach and educational initiatives that are focussed on challenging stereotypes, expanding curricula and raising youth aspirations.
The EUROTAST network is offering a broad range of scholars the rare opportunity to work dynamically on a highly contested aspect of human history. When the network convened for the first time this June, discussions around ethics, representation, public engagement and community ownership of research outcomes were the main priority. None of us can truly speak on behalf of those people that were rendered voiceless through enforced and then historical silencing, but as researchers we can offer windows onto their journeys and experiences.
Of course some have and would argue that returning to origins questions, amidst modern day realties of inequality and injustice, is simply just too painful a process. But, as Bruce Springsteen once sang “you can’t forsake the ties that bind.” In the end, it is perhaps memory; community and a sense of belonging that keep us engaged in a constant conversation with past.