Generational DNA Makeup of Black Americans

Abbie Key
4 min readFeb 12, 2021

When researching causes for the unnecessary high number of black maternal mortality rates, I found a really interesting article. The author, Courtney Barnes, has been an obstetrician, the doctor who performs deliveries, for 15 years. Based on the facts in my other post “Simply an African American Woman’s Skin Color” it is easy to see that black women have a higher death rate during childbirth because of discrimination. Barnes explains an interesting take by giving a quick biology lesson about how ”racism silently kills” (Why Are Birth Outcomes Different for Women of Color?). When DNA is folded into the cells, it is done in such a way that some DNA actually stays unfolded to connect to the RNA section that needs reading. However, different types of environmental factors like diet, smoking, and chronic stress can cause epigenetic changes. That is when the DNA and RNA do not line up the way they should and a possible tumor suppression code is hidden. Barnes explains that “Psychological stress, like experiencing violence or emotional abuse, can also change what part of the DNA gets read. Things like getting repeatedly pulled over in your own neighborhood because you don’t look like you belong, consistently getting in trouble at school for aggression when simply expressing your opinion, being chosen for additional screening nearly every time you fly — they all can cause stress that can lead to epigenetic changes” (Why Are Birth Outcomes Different for Women of Color?).

Another interesting aspect is that these epigenetic changes can be passed down through generations. So all of the psychological stress from slavery, Civil Rights movement, and even from the Black Lives Matter movements will affect the way the genetics of future generations are produced.

Shannon Sullivan, author of the article Inheriting Racist Disparities in Health: Epigenetics and the Transgenerational Effects of White Racism, answered a question she read in a briefing paper for the American Nurses Association: “‘How does race get under the skin and influence our physiology if it isn’t biological?’”(Smedley et.al.2012,6). Sullivan answers the question by saying “the paper’s authors rightly answer that it is not biology alone that constitutes our body’s physiology. Existing health disparities between races, for example, are not the result of any innate biological or genetic differences — indeed, in that sense, race does not exist — but rather the result of being harassed, oppressed, and discriminated against because one is not white” (Inheriting Racist Disparities in Health: Epigenetics and the Transgenerational Effects of White Racism). The idea that how we are created genetically is based on physiology from generations years back is very fascinating. Jacquelyn Clemmons wrote an article titled “Black Families Have Inherited Trauma, but We Can Change That,” focusing on the inherited racial trauma from generations ago. One way Clemmons demonstrates the years of racial trauma shown in generations today, is by discussing J. Marion Sims. He is considered the father of gynecology who’s test subjects were black enslaved women. “Because it was believed that Black people do not feel pain, they were experimented on without any anesthesia. Fast-forward to the early 20th century Tuskegee experiments and current high infant and maternal death rates in the Black population, and the Black community’s general distrust in the medical system makes sense. These responses are not only a survival response, but one generated from DNA-encoded information. The impact of these traumas are lodged in our DNA” (Black Families Have Inherited Trauma, but We Can Change That). The stress and health is carried psychologically that then creates a type of domino effect on the mother and child’s health, leading to problems before, during, and after birth. Clemmons expresses, “The truth of the matter is that the effects of trauma are not one-sided. As much as the Black community has been affected by the experience of chattel slavery, so has the white community. To get to the root of the systems, beliefs, practices, and ideals, we all have to do the work.”(Black Families Have Inherited Trauma, but We Can Change That).

What can we all do to uproot the typical systems, beliefs, practices, and ideals? Africa Jackson quotes a Dr. Joy Harden-Bradfeild in the article Intergenerational Trauma Among Black Women: A Roundtable. Dr. Harden-Bradfield is a creator of the Black Girl Therapy podcast that discusses the idea of intergenerational trauma. “ In it, she describes the need for Black women to vocalize our pain to move forward in our journey and to break the cycle. Her guest, Shaketa Robinson-Bruce, a certified professional counselor in Atlanta, notes that the effects of historical trauma are passed down through the generations, with impacts including perpetual poverty, continuing cycles of abuse, and the normalization of violence.” In the opinion section of the Daily Sundial, the article “Stopping Generational Trauma in Communities of Color” states “ Clinicians who focus on treating solely the presenting symptoms such as anxiety and depression without giving consideration to the socio-political-historical components are destined to fail as services. Exploring intergenerational effects as being not only psychological, but also social, neurobiological, biological and cultural, is of the utmost importance.” Simply put, Black women have a higher mortality rate from childbirth because of the generational trauma that changes the wiring of DNA.

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Abbie Key
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In a world where you can be anything, be kind