Henry Louis Gates Jr., Ph.D.

Henry Louis Gates Jr., Ph.D.

Henry Louis Gates Jr., Ph.D., recently sat in the kitchen of his Cambridge, Mass., home peering at a picture of his family tree. Explaining the significance of discovering one’s roots, he recalled the words of Carter G. Woodson: “The conditions of today have been determined by what has taken place in the past.” The director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University and host of Finding Your Roots on PBS shares how tracing one’s lineage can be an experience that transforms and shapes our lives.

EBONY: Why is it important to trace your heritage?

Gates: Slavery, which wanted us to be a rootless people in order to control us and subjugate us, did its best to deny us systematically of our African roots. We need to reverse the schism that has been created between African people in the New World and African people in the Old World. Once you realize “how they got over,” as we say [about our ancestors], the more strength you can draw for your own battles. Anti-Black racism is a terrible affliction on American society, and we need all the tools and resources we can to fight it.

EBONY: How does one begin the process?

Gates: First, interview your parents, grandparents or the oldest living members of your family and get as much detail as you can. Next, go to the genealogical society or the local library in your city (both are free) for help, or hire a genealogist who specializes in tracing African-Americans. You can also look up the name of your ancestor in the censuses, which are indexed and mostly housed online. Ancestry.com will lead you to every document in its database with your ancestor’s name on it.  When the paper trail runs out, it’s time to get your DNA tested at AfricanAncestry.com, which gives you its estimate of the specific tribe you’re from in Africa. Or, you can use AfricanDNA.com, which tells you your percentage of African, European and Native American ancestry.

EBONY: How does retracing one’s genealogy relate to African-American identity?

Gates: I think everyone feels more whole. I look at my family tree, which goes back to people born in the 1700s, every day, and know “I come from somebody.” That’s empowering. And I can pass this legacy on to my children.

Bryna Jean-Marie is an NYC-based writer.