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Gates Uncovers Roots In PBS Series

Af-Am chair finds he is half-white as he produces documentary with celebs

By Lulu Zhou, Crimson Staff Writer

The chair of Harvard’s African and African-American Studies Department, Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr., may be on crutches, but even a broken ankle did not hinder Gates in a journey through his genealogical and genetic history. “African American Lives,” a PBS documentary that debuted last night, followed Gates and eight other prominent African Americans as they uncovered their ancestral roots.

The four-hour series, part one of which aired yesterday, chronicles the quests of Gates, talk show host Oprah Winfrey, actress Whoopi Goldberg, astronaut Mae Jemison, musician Quincy Jones, televangelist T.D. Jakes, neurosurgeon Ben Carson, and fellow Harvard professor Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot as they trace their family trees all the way back to Africa.

Gates worked on the project as host, writer, narrator, creator, and executive producer.

And as a subject.

Gates said that he—along with Jones and Lawrence-Lightfoot—discovered that they had “quite a lot” of European ancestry.

For Gates, additional genetical testing revealed that he is half white.

“I have to teach European studies now, as well as African American studies,” he quipped.


Family trees have been a lifelong passion for Gates, who is also director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research.

“Since I was 10, I’ve been obsessed with my family tree,” Gates said. “I wanted to find out about my ancestors.”

This obsession was further stimulated when Gates came across Alex Haley’s genealogical search.

“Since 1977, when Alex Haley’s ‘Roots’ aired on TV...I’ve had what I call ‘roots envy,’” Gates said.

Gates dug into his “roots envy” to unearth roots of family history, resulting in findings that were oftentimes surprising and moving.

The tools were census records, property tax records, baptismal records, birth and death certificates, wills—virtually anything that the series’ staff of professional genealogists could get its hands on. Gates described the research as “an extraordinarily painstaking process.”

Slaves were historically identified only by first names, making the search difficult, but the researchers successfully compiled extensive generational branches by probing the many records.

For Gates and his guests, the ability to reap information about their enslaved ancestors who had been heretofore unknown was an emotional discovery, one that caused Winfrey and Goldberg to “break down and cry,” Gates said.

“We were restoring the blood of their blood, flesh of their flesh,” he said.

Lawrence-Lightfoot, who is Fisher professor of education, said she was amazed by how far back her genealogy could be traced, even though she was already familiar with her family’s oral history, which she encountered in writing her mother’s biography.

“The most exciting part for me was many generations back there were of free blacks,” Lawrence-Lightfoot said.

In fact, Gates said that he and Lawrence-Lightfoot had the oldest lineages out of the group of nine.

At the end of the genealogical journey, Gates walked away with knowledge of five lines of his family tree, and the pension application of one of his fifth great-grandfathers, a free black who fought in the Revolutionary War. He originally had known only one line of his family tree back to the birth of his paternal great-great-grandmother in 1819, Gates said.

Gates did not stop at compiling family trees within the United States, but continued the journey into Africa with genetic technology.

With the aid of DNA testing, Gates and his eight guests traced their roots to their African ancestors. Gates and Tucker also flew across the Atlantic to visit the Angolan tribe of Mbundu, of which Tucker is a descendent.

The genetic connections resulted in the most surprising findings.

“All of my guests thought that they had a considerable amount of Native American ancestry,” Gates said. “And only two did.”


Gates said he hopes the project will teach people about genetic diversity.

“What it shows you is that we’re all mixed up,” Gates said. “We might claim different ethnic identities in the day, but when the lights went out all those barriers came tumbling down.”

Lawrence-Lightfoot echoed Gates’ sentiment.

“I hope that people will recognize the extraordinary diversity and variation among African Americans,” she said.

But the recognition will be

“abbreviated” by the constraints of the series’ format, Lawrence-Lightfoot said.

“The medium of TV and of fitting all of these life stories and generational stories into four hours of TV is just an amazingly ambitious project,” said Lawrence-Lightfoot, a sociologist by training, who said that she is used to studying personal histories for months at a time.

The project’s findings resonate far beyond the histories of its eight protagonists, Lawrence-Lightfoot added.

“I thought it was a very important idea, educationally, not only for African Americans,” she said. “This kind of insight is really important in terms of how we identify ourselves, our own sense of our place in the world.”

Gates said he also hoped to educate people that modern technology, such as DNA analysis, is available for tracing family histories.

“My ulterior motive was to interest inner-city schoolchildren in the wonders of science and historical research by making it fun and making it productive,” Gates said.

The second half of the series will air next Wednesday.

—Staff writer Lulu Zhou can be reached at

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