AfriGeneas World Research Forum
Blending Of Races, Cultures In U.S.
Exploring Roots Of Famous Black Americans
When he employed DNA testing to find the roots of prominent African Americans for a new genealogy show on PBS for Black History Month, Henry Louis Gates Jr. couldn't resist looking into his own family's past.
What he found surprised him: The W.E.B. Du Bois professor of humanities and chair of the African and African American Studies Department at Harvard University was half white.
"Oh, man. It was the long dark night of the soul," Gates says about the discovery, joking: "what about my reparation check? I have to give away half of my reparation check? All that affirmative-action money - I have to give it back. It's terrible. It's very embarrassing to me."
Gates, who hosts and produced "African American Lives," a four-hour, two-part series that begins Wednesday on PBS, says he knew his family had some white blood in it. But by administering one of the scientific tests in the program, he found that his father is 67 percent white and that he's 50 percent white.
"What does that mean? Does that make me less black? I had to ask all those questions," Gates says. "And, no, I mean, I'm very secure in my African American identity. It just means that African Americans and European Americans have been inextricably intertwined on the most intimate level from day one in this country."
For those whose past he looks into on the program - including Oprah Winfrey, Quincy Jones, Whoopi Goldberg, Chris Tucker - he traces family lineage back through American history, often back to slavery and in some cases all the way back to Africa, using genealogy, oral history, family stories and modern DNA analysis.
While he could have discovered just as interesting stories from ordinary African Americans, Gates says, he deliberately chose celebrities and prominent blacks in part because they would attract more viewers.
"I was trying to seduce high school and elementary school kids into science and into historical research, and I was trying to make a larger point," he says.
Of the more than 100 series PBS has done on the African American experience, Gates says, most concentrate on a very few great people, including Frederick Douglass, W.E.B Du Bois and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
"I wanted people representing a wide variety of occupations," he says. "So I didn't want to reinforce stereotypes about entertainers and athletes. But I wanted them to be seductive enough so people would actually watch."