Henry Louis Gates Jr. says that his family called his grandfather “Casper” behind his back because he looked so white.
“I wanted to know how someone of my phenotype,” says Harvard historian, referring to his skin tone, “could be descended from him. How, in one generation, I could be the grandson of someone who looked like him.”
That sparked the Harvard historian’s fascination with genealogy. His show “Finding Your Roots” – which traces the family histories of celebrities – is now entering its fourth season on PBS, and it has already yielded some interesting surprises.
For one, Bernie Sanders and Larry Sanders are related. Sanders and Ted Danson both have slave owners in their family tree, and CNN political analyst Ana Navarro learned she had ancestors that were slaves.
“I’m your basic liberal…enlightened, whatever,” says Danson, “But then when you sit there and you connect yourself to a slave owner, it’s powerful.”
When Gates had a DNA test on himself, he found out he had a genetic signature from Ireland. Even more interesting, it turned out his overall mixture was 50 percent black and 50 percent white.
“That means 50 percent of my ancestors back 500 years were white and 50 percent were black,” he explains.
“This is the chairman of the Department of African and African American Studies at Harvard – half a white man. This was a very embarrassing moment for me. I was afraid my salary was going to be docked,” he jokes.
According to a 2014 study done by 23andMe, one of the companies that test DNA, the average African-American genome is nearly a quarter European, and almost 4 percent of European Americans – at least 6 million people – carry African ancestry. The odds of having African ancestry are highest in the South.
As experts note, much of European DNA found in African-Americans can be traced back to before the Civil War and to the rape of slave women. Gates thinks the mother of his grandfather’s grandfather may fit that scenario. She was slave freed in 1865, who able to move North and buy a house.
Questions of race remain complicated in this country, and so are those of ancestry.
This season on “Finding Your Roots,” Bryant Gumbel finds he has Jewish ancestors and so does Nicaragua-born Navarro, who is part Ashkenazi Jew.
The political analyst says she always felt an inexplicable connection to both the African-American and Jewish experience. “In a way, it was a reaffirmation of these very strong personal feelings that I’ve had my entire life,” she says. “There’s actually a reason for it.”
Sometimes “Finding Your Roots” discovers something embarrassing, such as a couple of seasons ago when it turned out that one of Ben Affleck’s ancestors was a slaveholder. The actor asked to leave the fact out of the show. Gates agreed, but was criticized for it.
Now, he says, standards are more rigorous and “a broader range of consultants, both academics and scientists and genealogists have it made it a better show.”
Gates’ show has grown as companies like Ancestry.com, 23andMe and African Ancestry have made it easier for people to trace their roots, The scholar sees the process as opening a door to your ancestors’ lives.
“You have no idea that you are living their stories. You are echoes and shadows of their lives,” he says. “You can’t erase the history of your ancestors. You literally live in their genes, and, metaphorically, through them in your habits, your customs, and your beliefs.”
As you see in the Bernie Sanders-Larry David episode, discoveries often lead to new understandings. David learned facts – like his mother didn’t use her given name – that explained aspects of his family that had long puzzled him.
Gates believes finding out your ancestry is an act of positive self-esteem. “It’s trying to figure out how I got here, who paid the dues to get me here. Everybody wants to be descended from kings. Usually, they are just regular people who worked hard and sacrifice.”
The Harvard professor also hopes that the series highlights another hot-buttoned issue – immigration. “Even Native Americans migrated to the continent,” notes Gates, who sees immigrants as people who “survived, migrated and thrived.”
Among the guests this season are Garrison Keillor, Amy Schumer, Carmelo Anthony, Ava DuVernay, Téa Leoni, Scarlett Johansson, Gaby Hoffman, Questlove, Carly Simon Mary Steenburgen, William H. Macy, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Janet Mock, and Christopher Walken.
“What we do on ‘Finding Your Roots’ is reestablish links in the chain that connect you to your ancestors,” says Gates. “Alex Haley did everybody a favor.”
Finding Your Roots
What: Fourth season of the show that traces celebrities’ genealogy hosted by Henry Louis Gates Jr.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday.
Where: PBS SoCal.
source: daily news