Skip Gates Traces Ancestry of the Famous

Television personality Stephen Colbert is distantly related to Elizabeth Alexander, the African-American poet who read at President Barack Obama’s inauguration, Oscar-award winning actress Meryl Streep, and Queen Noor, the queen consort of Jordan.

This is just one of the “astonishing” results of the research done by Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, Jr. for his new four-part television series for PBS, “Faces of America.” The series traces the family trees of 12 famous Americans, using both historical documentation and DNA analysis, and is challenging Americans to reexamine their history in a uniquely personal way.

“No matter what the laws were in the daytime, no matter how societies tried to enforce sexual segregation, when the lights came down, everybody was sleeping with everybody,” Gates, a professor and director of the Director of the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research, announced to a charmed audience at “The Colbert Report” on Thursday night where he appeared to promote the series.

While working on the program, Gates learned that television personality and cardiothoracic surgeon Mehmet C. Oz ’82, who is Muslim, and Oscar, Grammy, Emmy, and Tony-award winning director Michael I. Nichols, who is Jewish, have a common ancestor.

“It’s sort of like the biblical story of Abraham,” said Gates, referencing the father of the monotheistic faiths and his two sons—Isaac, the founder of Judaism, and Ishmael, the founder of Islam.

Gates described this discovery as emblematic of the purpose of the project.

“Faces of America is my way of celebrating what for me is the true triumph of American democracy, which is our diversity, our ethnic, cultural, and religious diversity,” Gates said. “And we can now measure that diversity, in a sense, through genealogy and genetics.”

Gates noted that “Faces of America” is not without its bittersweet moments.

In one episode of the series, the journalist Malcolm T. Gladwell, who is of Jamaican descent, learns that his fifth great-grandmother was a free black woman who owned slaves.

“That’s a pretty heavy thing to realize for a black person,” Gates said. “There are painful things and there are joyous things, but that’s what our past is, it’s a combination of tragedy and triumph.”

Gates said that he was inspired to create the show when he received a letter from a woman of Russian descent in response to his series “African American Lives” that focused on tracing the family histories of prominent African-Americans. The woman wrote to him asking if he would do a follow-up, exploring the genealogies of Americans of all races, not just African-Americans.

“At first I thought, this is not my job description,” Gates said.

A few weeks later, however, Gates found himself at a dinner party at the home of Martin Peretz, editor of The New Republic, where he spoke to Yo-Yo Ma ’76—who appears on “Faces of America”—about Ma’s recent trip to China where he visited an ancestral cemetery. The combination of the woman’s letter and Ma’s touching description motivated Gates to move outside his “job description” and engage with the issue of American heritage as a whole.

“Genealogy is just as important in every culture,” Gates said. “Everybody, everywhere cries when you resurrect their ancestors...Ancestry has never been as important to Americans as it is today.”

The first episode of “Faces of America” will premiere on Wednesday night at 9 p.m. on PBS.

—Staff writer Sofia E. Groopman can be reached at segroomp@fas.harvard.edu

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

CORRECTION: February 8, 2010

An original version of the Feb. 8 news article "Skip Gates Traces Ancestry of the Famous" misstated the name of Elizabeth Alexander—the African-American poet who read at President Barack Obama’s inauguration—as Elizabeth Adams.

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