The genealogies of top-grossing actor Samuel L. Jackson, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and renowned educator Ruth Simmons, the 18th President of Brown University, will be explored when WHYY presents "Finding Your Roots, with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.," airing April 29 at 8 p.m.
In the 10-part series filmed on location across the United States, Gates explores the family lineages of some of America's most prominent figures including Newark, NJ Mayor Cory Booker, actress Wanda Sykes, civil rights icon and U.S. Rep. John Lewis and Grammy Award-winning singer John Legend. In this Sunday's hour-long episode, Jackson, Rice and Simmons "finally find out the truth about the white men hidden in their family trees."
Rice has her roots traced to her great-grandmother, Zine Rice, who was born around 1830. When Rice discovers that she is "slightly more than half African," she said. "I've always thought that this is the kind of unhealed wound in America...that we have trouble talking about what really happened during slavery. We have trouble talking about the scars of that...that's the unspoken and the unfinished business of race in America."
At a recent screening of "Finding Your Roots," Gates told the story of how he became interested in genealogy as a nine year-old boy after the 1960 funeral of his grandfather Edward St. Lawrence Gates. He said that he was struck by how pale his light-skinned granddad appeared in the casket, and it made him curious to know more about how he got that way.
"The next day I got a composition book, and I interviewed my parents in front of the TV about their family tree," Gates said. "That night Daddy showed me a picture of our oldest ancestor, Jane Gates, who was a slave born in 1819, and she died in 1888. I have been addicted to genealogy ever since."
Gates, the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor at Harvard University, director of the W.C.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research and Editor-in-Chief of "The Root," broke new ground in 2006 with his first genealogy series, "African-American Lives." He explored the roots of such Black celebrities as Oprah Winfrey, Chris Tucker, Don Cheadle, Chris Rock, Tom Joyner, Maya Angelou, Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Tina Turner.
While doing research for the show, Gates was also able to confirm through DNA analysis that his grandfather's heritage included Irish ancestry.
The Root.com and Politico.com contributed to this report.
Company could be first to establish marketplace for African-American consumers
When it comes to determining their lineage, more people are turning to African Ancestry, Inc. for answers.
African Ancestry (AfricanAncestry.com) was formed by Black scientist Dr. Rick Kittles and African-American entrepreneur Gina Paige, who pioneering DNA-based ancestry tracing for people of African descent across the world.
The Washington, D.C.-based enterprise helps people of African descent discover where they come from in Africa through a proprietary DNA matching analysis led by Kittles.
“I never imagined that my passion for African history and the movements of its people throughout the world would have one day manifested in a much-needed consumer product among African Americans,” said Kittles, whose years of research on genetic variation in African peoples led to the founding of African Ancestry.
Launched in 2003, the company is considered the first to establish a marketplace among African-American consumers.
When consumers engage African Ancestry, they can decide whether they want to determine maternal or paternal lineage. Consumers purchase a test kit to swab their cheeks for DNA and return it to the company. Kittles and his team analyze sequences of a consumers’ DNA to determine whether his or her lineage is African, European, Middle Eastern or Native American.
“What makes us unique is that when the ancestry is African, we are the only company that can place it in a present-day country in Africa and also an ethnic group or groups in the country,” Paige pointed out.
Customers receive a comprehensive results package that includes a letter, a print out of their DNA sequence, certificate of ancestry and a guide to explain the science.
Paige noted that the company has heightened DNA literacy in the community.
“We have had to overcome the lack of knowledge about DNA in the Black community, so really what we’ve done is we’ve increased the genetic literacy of the community. So now people understand that DNA is more than something that can put you in jail or get you out of jail,” she pointed out.
African Ancestry has tested more than 30,000 people over the last nine years.
“So when you spin that out among family members there are hundreds of thousands of people who have a connection to the continent that they never had before,” she said.
“This work has had a very personal impact on people, families and communities. It’s had an impact nationally and it’s even had an impact globally.”
Finding their connection to the continent has spurred some consumers to invest in the continent of Africa and has led to the development of foundations, Paige said.
African Ancestry has helped media powerhouses deliver groundbreaking genealogy programming. Starting with African American Lives 1 and 2 nearly a decade ago, AfricanAncestry.com has gone on to play a major role on NBC’s Who Do You Think You Are?; CNN’s “Black in America” series; “Faces of America” and most recently, “Finding Your Roots” with Henry Louis Gates Jr.
“Finding Your Roots” is the latest series from renowned cultural critic Henry Louis Gates Jr., and is purposed to utilize genealogy and genetics to explore the fascinating dynamics of race, family and identity in today’s America. In collaboration with leading genealogists, world-class research and historical societies, Finding Your Roots combines to satisfy the basic drive to discover who we are and where we come from by focusing on 25 celebrity guests of all races in the 10-part series. AfricanAncestry.com picks up where the show’s paper trail ends by using DNA to geographically assess the African country for guests which have included Samuel L. Jackson, Condoleezza Rice, Ruth Simmons, John Legend, Wanda Sykes, Branford Marsalis, Cory Booker, Geoffrey Canada and Rep. John Lewis.
The next show will air May 20 at 8 p.m. on PBS. For information about Finding Your Roots visit www.pbs.org/wnet/finding-your-roots.
BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — After a tragedy like the Trayvon Martin killing, calls routinely arise for a conversation about race.But Henry Louis Gates thinks the more direct way for structural change is through schools and their curriculum.
That's what he's hoping will happen with "The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross," a six-hour PBS documentary series that traces 500 years of Black history.
"To tell the whole sweep of African-American history — no one's tried to do that. That was what we were crazy enough to do," Gates said in an interview on Wednesday.
He hopes the series will find its way into the nation's schools as well as its living rooms, and acquaint audiences of all ages — both Black and white — with Black history, about which he says both races are equally ignorant.
"How can I help with the conversation about race? Schools are tools for the formation of citizenship. My target is the school curriculum: getting an integrated story told," he said.
An author, Harvard scholar, social critic and filmmaker, Gates has produced such past documentary series as "Wonders of the African World" and "Finding Your Roots."
In this latest project, he reaches back to the beginning — which turns out to be about a century earlier than many accounts of Black history in the New World.
"The very first African to come to North America was a free man accompanying Ponce de Leon who arrived in Florida in 1513, more than a century before the first 20 Africans arrived in Jamestown in 1620," Gates said. "Nobody was talking about those first 107 years of African-American history."
Gates has also tried to get the inside story that he says has commonly eluded historians.
"I've always been struck by the quality of conversations in a Black beauty parlor or a Black barber shop, as opposed to what Black officials say or what Black teachers write in a textbook," Gates said, "because we edit ourselves.
"I wanted to get the subjects in the film to speak to me as we would speak to each other behind closed doors."
Gates said that between 1501 and 1866, 388,000 slaves were brought from Africa to the United States, with 42 million of their descendants alive today.
"We want to tell about the world they created, how they survived, and how they eventually thrived," he said. "This isn't the history of George Washington, it's the history of his slave, Harry Washington. This isn't the story of 'American Bandstand,' it's the story of 'Soul Train.'"
"The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross" premieres October 22. -- (AP)