“Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates Jr.” is another of the Harvard professor’s wonderful television series for PBS. This is “must-see TV” and a more than worthy sequel to three previous projects Gates has hosted about how some of us came to be what and who we are.
In this latest 10-part series, Gates explores the genealogical and genetic history of a diverse group of people, from entertainer Harry Connick Jr. and Pastor Rick Warren to former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Brown University President Ruth Simmons. There are less famous people, but the famous get you hooked for the rest.
As I wrote about the earlier series, “African American Lives,” which traced the African and slave roots of celebrities, including Oprah Winfrey and Chris Rock, Gates eviscerates any excuse for racism when he explores the lineage of the African Americans he interviews. That’s because the whitest and blackest among us are actually a mix of genes formed out of a racial melting pot that includes ancestors who were both black and white.
It would be easy for Gates, whose political sympathies align with the Democratic left, to make these programs a partisan rant against historical and cultural injustice and the Republican Party. He avoids that temptation, letting the facts he and his team unearth speak for themselves.
Gates has become a modern-day Ralph Edwards. Edwards hosted a TV show in the 1950s called “This is Your Life.” On the show, childhood friends and long-lost relatives would surprise a famous guest and regale the audience with funny and heart-warming stories from the celebrity’s past.
On Gates’ program, those relatives are long dead. They are ghosts who have faded through generations of family history, leaving only stories handed down by word of mouth.
One of the most poignant moments in the current series is when Condoleezza Rice learns about her great-grandmother, Julia Head. Through stories told by her family, Rice learned that Head was the child of a slave and a white slave owner. After a search of courthouse records in Greene County, Ala., Gates discovers documents that reveal Julia Head was just 4 years old when she was sold for $450.
Shown the record of the sale, Rice soberly responds, “My great-grandmother was worth $450 to Mr. Head. Yeah, dehumanization. Just property.”
Conservatives should love this series because it shows that despite incredible odds that argued against success, the subjects Gates profiles overcame overwhelming obstacles to achieve something significant. Long before the birth of our entitlement generation, we held these kinds of role models up to young people. The message was, “If they could overcome, so can you.” That’s what Rice’s parents believed. On “Finding Your Roots,” Rice said her parents told her that even though she might not have been able to drink a soda at the local Woolworths segregated lunch counter in 1963, she could be president of the United States if she wished.
She came close.
In an age when we change homes and jobs many times during our lifetimes and families are broken up because of divorce and other factors, finding one’s roots is an important component to filling in one’s family tree.
Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I headed? These are all fundamental questions to which every human being, regardless of race, gender or background, wants answers. Professor Gates provides these answers to the people he profiles, but his programs also encourage viewers to explore their own family histories so they can know more about themselves.
If you missed “Finding Your Roots” or any of Gates’ other series, check your local PBS listings for rebroadcast dates or buy the DVD at www.pbs.org/wnet/finding-your-roots. Your purchase will be worth the investment. This is some of the best television you’ll ever see. It is also something rare for television today: a program that helps you truly appreciate the value of your own life.