Race and the Epigenetics of Memory


  • Gabriela Soto Laveaga Temple University Press




In my brief response to Terence Keel’s essay “Race on Both Sides of the Razor,” I focus on something as pertinent as alleles and social construction: how we write history and how we memorialize the past. Current DNA analysis promises to remap our past and interrogate certainties that we have taken for granted. For the purposes of this commentary I call this displacing of known histories the epigenetics of memory. Just as environmental stimuli rouse epigenetic mechanisms to produce lasting change in behavior and neural function, the unearthing of forgotten bodies, forgotten lives, has a measurable effect on how we act and think and what we believe. The act of writing history, memorializing the lives of others, is a stimulus that reshapes who and what we are. We cannot disentangle the discussion about the social construction of race and biological determinism from the ways in which we have written—and must write going forward—about race. 

To the debate about social construction and biological variation we must add the heft of historical context, which allows us to place these two ideas in dialogue with each other. Consequently, before addressing the themes in Keel’s provocative opening essay and John Hartigan’s response, I speak about dead bodies—specifically, cemeteries for Black bodies. Three examples—one each from Atlanta, Georgia; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; and Mexico—illustrate how dead bodies must enter our current debates about race, science, and social constructions.