Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr. may be an influential historian of African-American literature and culture, the head of Harvard’s African-American studies, an award-winning documentary filmmaker and a leading critic, but it’s his genealogical research work that he’s best known for today. Since 2005, Gates has been uncovering the family roots of African-American celebrities first on African American Lives and now on Finding Your Roots.
Gates’s attraction to genealogy sparked when he was very young. At 9, he was already mapping out his own family’s roots. The topic of genetics is always front and center for Gates—the first thing he asked me when we started chatting was the origin of my Haitian and French family name. “I was just curious,” he says before inquiring about my name.
The third season of Finding Your Roots (airing now on PBS with an impressive 40 percent hike in viewership on their premier episode) is proof that Americans of all ethnicities share Gates’s enthusiasm for family trees. “This makes my heart sing,” he says. “We want to ultimately create art and a narrative about who we are as Americans that is engaging and compelling.”
EBONY: This is the third season of Finding Your Roots. Looking back, did you imagine so many people would be interested in family trees that aren’t even their own?
Henry Louis Gates Jr.: I started the series being a scholar of African and African-American studies. I started by just looking at the genealogy of well-known Black people. The first season was called African American Lives, and we did people like Oprah, Ben Carson and Quincy Jones. It was a huge hit and nobody had ever done anything like it.
We really invented the genre of tracing family trees and going back as far as we could on the paper trail. When the paper trail disappeared, we used DNA analysis. The technology was just being invented that allowed you to trace ancestry through DNA. I thought, ‘Why don’t we be innovative and create something nobody had ever done before?’ It was a huge hit, and we immediately did a sequel with Chris Rock, Morgan Freeman, Tina Turner and Maya Angelou.
EBONY: When did you expand your research to include the family trees of White guests?
HLG: I got a letter from this lady of Russian and Jewish descent. She asked me if I was a racist because I didn’t do any White people. [laughter] I was shocked, because my mandate is to do Black studies. It would have never occurred to me if this lady hadn’t written this letter. We decided we were going expand the brand and do everybody. That morphed into what is now the third season of Finding Your Roots. Our premiere episode had some great numbers. The audience keeps growing and growing.
EBONY: Why do you think the viewership is growing so much now?
HLG: I think it’s because the world is so unstable. In the old days, you lived in one neighborhood, you knew all your neighbors and your daughter married the guy next door. That was social and economic progress. That model is gone now. We also had a world order that was fraught but fairly stable.
We now have chaos reigning in the Middle East. There is a great deal of instability. In the past, people would have turned to their church, and some still do. Counterintuitively, people are now turning into themselves to find their roots. The way you do that is through your family tree. “Where did I come from?” There is an urge to preserve the names of the people who produced you.
Fifty-thousand years ago, we all descended from Africans who left the continent. Those ancestors, we will never know their name. We can go back 200 or 300 years and actually populate your family tree with real people who had names and documents. They had customs, characteristics that, unbeknownst to you, you have inherited. Almost through osmosis it has been passed down to you.
Some people discover things from their ancestors and realize they do that too. Shonda Rhimes found out one of her slave ancestors was called Matilda. She broke down and cried and revealed she wanted to name her daughter Matilda. She never knew why.
A temple in ancient Greece had as its motto “know thyself.” My motto for the series is: know thy ancestors, know thyself. We have a list of 70 celebrities who want to be on the show. If you watch the show, one of the lessons in it is that we are all related. The Irish factor episode featured Soledad O’Brien, Bill O’Reilly and Bill Maher. The ratings were even higher than the premiere. What we are seeing is Black people are watching the stories of Irish people and Irish people are watching the stories of Black people. Everyone is watching everyone’s story.
EBONY: What is your personal and oldest memory of genealogy?
HLG: It started when I was 9. I remember the day because it was when we buried my father’s father, in Cumberland, Maryland. I was standing by his open casket looking at his corpse and how White he was. I thought, “how can someone with my features be descendant from this man?” He could have passed [for White] in two seconds.
After we buried him, my father showed me and my brother my grandfather’s scrapbooks. We didn’t know he owned them and he had dozens. It took my father half an hour to find it. He showed us an obituary dated January 6, 1888. It read: “Died this day: Jane Gates, an estimable colored woman.” He said, “this is the oldest Gates, and I don’t want you to forget her.” He closed the scrapbook and put it back in the closet.
I went home and the first thing I did was look up the word “estimable,” because I didn’t know what it meant. The next day, I had my father buy me a composition book, and that night, in front of the TV, I interviewed my parents about what only later I would learn is my family tree. I was hooked since that day.
Once DNA made it possible to trace ancestors back to Africa, it made sense I would do this. It’s a gift now. I feel like the genealogical Santa Claus. People break down and cry and thank me for revealing secrets of the past.
EBONY: How does that make you feel?
HLG: It makes me feel like I’m giving something to my country, to individual men and women, something that is unique and precious. You can go online and find these ancestors’ names, but we turn their coming and goings into rich stories.
EBONY: Knowing your roots provides one with a priceless sense of self-esteem. There was a time when tracing our roots back to Africa, or South Asia as in Keenan Ivory Wayans’s case, wasn’t possible like it is for Whites. The show has proven this notion to be wrong.
HLG: Absolutely. Two things happened when I got the idea in 2001. What happened in the interim is, billions of records have been digitized. Historians and scholars have always used genealogical records to tell the story of American history. It takes months and years of research. I can’t even tell you how laborious that is. You have to be somebody who has a lot of free time, like a professor who can take tenure or someone with a great deal of leisure.
What it would have taken someone to find in 10 years now takes 10 minutes, or even 10 seconds. We can do research now that was theoretically possible to do a decade ago but only specialist with a lot of money and time could do it.
The second thing that happened is, DNA analysis is much more sophisticated. All you have to do now is spit in a test tube and you find out all kind of things in six weeks—where they are from in Africa or Europe. You can prove or disprove the fundamental African-American myth that you descended from a Cherokee great, great grandmother. [laughter]
EBONY: That myth has had a long shelf life.
HLG: And nobody has ever has discovered this, by the way!
EBONY: Can you tell us about your Finding Your Roots curriculum you are currently working on for students?
HLG: That project is my baby. The project just got funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation and the National Science Foundation. We are going to start doing summer camps as an experiment next summer to see what works and what doesn’t. Once we’ve perfected it, then we will introduce it to school systems that will have it.
The more you learn about yourself and your family tree, your self-esteem goes up. They will learn archival skills, historical analysis and science skills. You learn all this in the most seductive way, and that is through learning about yourself. Who doesn’t like talking about themselves? It doesn’t seem like science or history, it’s just fun.
The reason I’m motivated to do this is because so many of our school systems have failed our kids. I loved school so much, and now school is a nightmare for so many kids. This curriculum can reach certain kind of kids who haven’t realized the wonders of learning the way Alexandra or Skip did. The reason you and I are in this position to have this call is because we fell in love with learning. I want poor Black and brown kids to fall in love with learning though their own ancestry. That is why genealogy is a way to explore yourself and stand taller.
Soledad O’Brien had two generations of mother and children in her family that were involved in a crime ring. They were caught and shipped to Australia, the penal colony. She is as proud of them as she is if they had been queens.
EBONY: This season’s Finding Your Roots theme is all about how we are all connected. Can you elaborate?
HLG: Our society is driven today by so much ethnic discord. We have Black Lives Matter, which I praise and celebrate. We have the demagogues stereotyping Muslims and resurrecting racist stereotypes they used to visit on us. The larger goal is to show that we are all the same, we all come from Africa, and we all have the same larger family tree. It’s about the fundamental unity of the human community.
EBONY: Does it ever get awkward when you have to reveal family secrets?
HLG: I try to be sensitive, but the atmosphere I create is very supportive. One overriding premise of the series is that guilt is not heritable. It’s good to know about them, but you are not responsible for them. You don’t have to apologize for them. It’s a process of knowing, and the more you know, the richer the sense of yourself. The firmer your foundation as a human being is.
Alexandra Phanor-Faury is a Haitian-American writer living in Brooklyn, New York with a slight (OK, major) addiction to fashion and pop culture. When she’s not up in the middle of the night filling her online shopping carts and catching up on style blogs, she’s writing about fashion and entertainment for a number of websites and magazines. Check out her work and blog at AlexandraPhanor.com.