New Gates Series Delves into Famous Family Trees

“Finding Your Roots,” a new PBS series developed by Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, launched Sunday.

The series aims to uncover the tales underlying the genealogies of a diverse group of accomplished guests ranging from the influential newswoman Barbara Walters to beloved actor Robert Downey, Jr. to former United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Gates, who has also produced the series “Black in Latin America” (2011) and “Faces of America” (2010), said “Finding Your Root” aims to spur discussion about the complexity of the American identity. He said he endeavors to challenge viewers to reconsider notions of identity and re-evaluate what they think they know about themselves and those around them. The show investigates people from all backgrounds in order to impact the greatest number of people, according to Gates.

“[“Finding Your Roots”] deconstructs the notion of race—forces us to ask what is an American identity and what is African American identity or what is Jewish identity,” said Gates.

In the inaugural episode, Gates investigated the ancestry of Grammy and Emmy award winner Henry Connick Jr., and Grammy award winning saxophonist Branford Marsalis. Gates revealed that Connick’s ancestors waged naval warfare against the British during the Revolutionary War. On the other hand, Marsalis’ ancestors included an interracial couple during the mid-1800s—a statistical rarity.

Gates said that he wanted to make sure to gather an impressive group of guests, stating that he wanted, “people [he admired] or wanted to meet, of different ethnicities as a cross-section of America.”

Gates’ latest venture differs from his earlier works in its scope, format, and focus on the complexity of individual identity. Gates is scheduled to produce 10 episodes of “Finding Your Roots,” making it more than twice the length of his earlier series.

Gates said that his focus on genealogy reflects a passion he has had since his youth. As a child, Gates said that he would ask his parents about their experiences and history in order to build a family tree.

With today’s advanced technology in genetic testing, he is now able to take his passion further, exploring genealogies in “new and exciting ways.”

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