Henry Louis Gates Uncovers 'Faces Of America'

Henry Louis Gates has been tracing DNA clues to uncover lost family histories for almost four years. Gates and one of his Faces Of America guests, professor and poet Elizabeth Alexander, discuss what the study says about individual identities and the make-up of America.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

For years now, Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., has explored what genealogy and genetics can tell us about who we are and where we came from. This month, his most expansive study to date, "Faces of America," airs as a four-part series on PBS. Professor Gates traces the family histories of 12 guests - Jordan's Queen Noor, musician Yo-Yo Ma, actress Meryl Streep and actor writer Malcolm Gladwell, among others - then presents his guests with pie charts derived from DNA analysis that shows percentages of European, Asian and African ancestry. There are plenty of surprises from both forms of research.

If you've looked into your family's history with DNA testing or with historical documents, tell us your story. Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. Thats at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, one of Bernie Madoff's victims on the priceless experience of losing it all, the "Bag Lady Papers." But first, Henry Louis Gates, executive producer and host of the PBS series "Faces of America" and director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University. He joins us from the studios of WGBH in Boston. Nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr.�HENRY LOUIS GATES (Executive Producer, Host, "Faces of America"; Director, W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research, Harvard University): Thanks so much, Neal. Nice to be back.

CONAN: I know you started this project, originally, as an effort to explore the lost histories of African-Americans whose families are almost impossible to trace before slavery. I wonder: Why did you decide to broaden it with this project?

Mr.�GATES: Well, the response to "African-American Lives" was so enthusiastic that I got all these letters, mostly, initially from black people, saying: A, how do I do this; and B, why didn't you include me in your series; and C, would you include me the next time?

But then I got letters from people who weren't black. And I got this one letter, Neal, from a lady who was Jewish and said that she was of Russian-Jewish heritage - ancestry, and she said why don't you do us? You know, why should the black people have all the fun?

And I thought about that, I said well, why not? Why wouldn't I took a Noah's ark approach. I wanted to do two Jewish people, two Arabic people, two Roman Catholics, two Latino people, and I put together, with my co-executive producers, Dyllan McGee and Peter Kunhardt, a list of 12 people.

And I wanted to do two black people in the group who were not of African-American descent, but of West Indian descent, and that's why I came up with Malcolm Gladwell, whose mother of course was born in Jamaica; and Elizabeth Alexander, whose grandfather was born in Jamaica, and I put it together.

So the series is really a tribute to the true triumph of American democracy, Neal, and that is the diversity of our people, which we can now measure both through genealogy and through genetics, through our genes.

CONAN: Elizabeth Alexander is going to join us a little bit later in the program, but one of the most fascinating parts of the project is the conversation you had with Malcolm Gladwell when you go back through the documents of his family and discover that one of his ancestors, a free woman of color in Jamaica, was also a slaveholder.

Mr.�GATES: Margaret Mullings(ph) is Malcolm's fifth great-grandmother, and she was a free woman of color who we found out was married to a Jewish man. But not only that, I showed, on camera, Malcolm, her will. He was astonished that the will existed. The will is dated 1823.

Now remember, slavery is abolished in the United States, well, it begins with the Emancipation Proclamation, it ends finally with the end of the Civil War. Slavery is abolished throughout the British Empire, the British colonies, which Jamaica was, in the 1830s - so 1834.

And so this is before the abolition of slavery. And I hand him the will, and we read it together, and she leaves her estate, valued at 1,180 pounds, to her children, her sons and grandchildren, and that includes, Neal, two pieces of land and 11 slaves.

And Malcolm was astonished, and he dealt with it very nobly. You see, at the end of "Outliers," he had written about light-skinned privilege, the advantage of being descended from mulattos had given his family, cumulatively, in Jamaica. But what he didn't know is, one generation back further than he had traced, he's descended from black people who actually owned slaves.

CONAN: That is a revelation. There is also one of the great moments, I thought, when you're talking with Yo-Yo Ma about his family and present him with this astonishing family record that you found in China, that somehow survived the cultural revolution, that goes back many, many centuries, and there's a comment that he remembers by his father. He's talking about how these were very poor people, the Ma family, at least in some parts of it - and that it took three generations of wealth to train a musician.

Mr.�GATES: Three generations of wealth to train a musician. They have to, you know, get out of poverty, accumulate wealth and then have the luxury of the third generation to pursue the arts.

And if you think about it, it's true in this country and probably every society, as well. Very few take my students at Harvard. Now, I've taught at Yale, at Cornell, at Duke and at Harvard. Very few, if any, first-generation black or white or Asian kids will pursue a Ph.D. They'll pursue the professions for economic security. Many will go to law school and/or business school.

CONAN: Or engineering or something like that, yeah, practical.

Mr.�GATES: Even if they're the most brilliant student of literature that we've ever seen. Remember, I have a Ph.D. in English literature. So I encounter them in African and African-American literature classes, but I'll say, you know, you have the stuff. You have the gift - you could be a great scholar. And they'll say: My father'd kill me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr.�GATES: And my mother - my brother, Dr.�Paul Gates, is the chief of dentistry at Bronx Lebanon Hospital, and my mama wanted two doctors, and I think they were a bit surprised when I told them I was going to get a Ph.D. rather than go to medical school, but then my mother looked me and said, well, you'll still be a doctor anyway.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Just not one of those doctors who where it really pays off.

Mr.�GATES: Right. But the Yo-Yo Ma story, I'm glad you brought that up. It's such an incredible story. You know, I love the stories for all my guests, but I have to say that finding that clan genealogy, which takes Yo-Yo Ma's family back to his 20th great-grandfather whose name was Ma Yuon Jang(ph). And Ma Yuon Jang, Neal, was born in the year 1217 A.D., which is two years, remember, after King John was forced to sign the Magna Carta at Runnymede, and it turns out that Elizabeth Alexander is descended from King John.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr.�GATES: And Yo-Yo Ma's 20th great-grandfather was a contemporary of Marco Polo, and also, he was appointed the head of the Imperial Examination Office by the Song emperor, whose name was Duzong. And we found the actual letter of appointment that Duzong wrote to Ma Yuon Jang.

This was like - running the Imperial Examination Office was a bit like running the college boards, you know, that administers the SATs and being president of Harvard. I mean, you were the man, and you determined people's fates.

But this story is so incredible, because this clan genealogy had been passed down since 1767, and in Yo-Yo's family. That's when his ancestor, Yo-Yo's fourth great-grandfather, had actually compiled it. And it was hidden during the cultural revolution by Yo-Yo's distant cousin in the wall of his house, because the cultural revolution demanded that things like clan genealogy, all the olds - like old music, like classical music and old literature and old records of your old family - be destroyed.

And this cousin, Ma Yo Da(ph), and his father discussed it in hushed tones and then hid it in a wall. Now, the father dies. Yo-Yo's cousin forgets all about it. He's renovating his house. I mean, he was a peasant, and he's renovating his house after capitalism came to China - you know, sometime in the last 10 years, we guess, we're not sure - and they tear this wall down, and this genealogy, which is four volumes, comes out, and if you see it, Neal, well, you can see it on camera in the series.

CONAN: On TV, yes.

Mr.�GATES: Half of it looks like you know when you throw a piece of paper in a fireplace, and it doesn't fully burn? Well, half of it would've been completely destroyed if it had been written on paper. But it wasn't. It was written on bamboo. And you can boil bamboo and restore it.

So we duplicated the half that was readable, and we made a special wooden chest. Yo-Yo had never heard of this, and as you saw, it's in Episode three, which airs a week from tonight, I pull this thing out from under the table and show Yo-Yo Ma his continuous family tree, and his Yo-Yo's father is one of the last entries in this clan genealogy.

And it Yo-Yo had always wondered where his name came from, because everyone in his name in his generation has the name Yo in their name. And this man dictated the names of 60 generations of his heirs to come, including Yo-Yo's clan name, Yo, and Bing, which is the clan generational name of Yo-Yo's children. Isn't that amazing?

CONAN: That is amazing. That's an amazing story. Quick email, this we have from Judy(ph) in Detroit. All of us descend from people who originated in Africa. Please explain why the ethnic origin, DNA results do not show African ancestry for everyone.

Mr.�GATES: Oh, that's a great question. Fifty-thousand years ago, we were all Africans, and we all lived in East Africa, and then 60,000 to 50,000 years ago, a small group of Africans - or people we would call Africans today - walked out, and they spread all over the world, their descendents.

And there are now about 1,250 haplogroups, male and female side, and haplogroups, think of them as branches of the family tree, genetic branches of the family tree.

Well, we give each of the guests in my series four tests. Two of the tests determine your haplo-type going back 10,000, 20,000 years ago. But the admixture test, which you're referring to, only measures back 500 years. So it's one thing to say that Neal Conan is an African 50,000 years ago, but you might not have any African ancestry in the last 500 years.

CONAN: Would've come as a shock in County Tipperary, yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr.�GATES: Your DNA, you get half of your DNA - half of your genome from your mother and half from your father. Well, do the math. Every generation, you're halving going back. If you go back 50,000 years, there's nothing left, really. I mean, there's something there, but it's not measurable in terms of ethnicity.

And by the way, the company 23andMe does these admixture tests, and they're quite excellent and quite reasonable, actually.

CONAN: We're going to find out what the results of an interesting one of those was in just a moment when Elizabeth Alexander, one of the guests on this program, joins us. She's part of that new series that Henry Louis Gates is the executive producer and presenter of called "Faces of America."

If you've looked into your family history with DNA testing or historical documents, tell us your story, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

In his latest project, Skip Gates uses the latest tools of genealogy and genetics to trace the family histories of Yo-Yo Ma, Stephen Colbert, Meryl Streep and nine other guests. What he uncovers tells them a lot about who they are, where they came from and often comes with a real surprise.

"Faces of America" premiered on PBS this month. It runs as a four-part series. Part two airs tonight. Check local listings.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr., is executive producer. He directs the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University. If you've looked into your family's history, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And let's start with Carlotta(ph), Carlotta with us on the line from St.�Louis.

CARLOTTA (Caller): Hi. First of all, I want to say how exciting it is to be talking with Dr.�Gates. I've been a fan for a really long time. But I have a kind of interesting story. About 15 years ago, my brother was helping my daughter on a project for school. She was supposed to research a foreign immigrant to this country, and she decided to do one of her own ancestors.

And so my brother helped her with the genealogy. My father's family is from Guadeloupe in the French West Indies, and we discovered that a Creole nanny that helped raise my father, that my grandparents had brought to St.�Louis with them, turned out to be an aunt.

CONAN: Oh really?

CARLOTTA: Yeah.

CONAN: And was this why was she passing as a nanny and not as a family member?

CARLOTTA: Well, I suppose she was my guess is that she was, like, maybe a half-sister of my grandfather or one of his siblings, and I guess maybe she was my grandparents, my great-grandparents had raised sugar cane and horses in Guadeloupe, and so my guess is that back in the day, somewhere along the line, they had slaves.

CONAN: Yes, certainly on the sugar cane side. Henry Louis Gates?

Mr.�GATES: Well, the two things. First of all, Neal, the biggest surprise for me now remember, I've done "African-American Lives 1," "African-American Lives 2," then "Finding Oprah's Roots" and then "Faces of America." The biggest surprise - genetic surprise, I'm sorry, doing these series is how mixed the African-American people are, just like Carlotta's, you know, mystery aunt.

The 33 percent, if we did the DNA of all the black men in the NBA, 33 percent descend from a white man who is their great-great-grandfather or their third great-grandfather, and overall in the African-American community, 58 percent of the African-American community have at least 12.5 percent European ancestry, which is the equivalent of one great- grandparent.

And what that means is that no matter what the laws were in the daytime, when the lights came down, everybody was getting down with everybody else.

Now of course, in slavery, a lot of this interracial sex, this so-called mysogynation, was coerced or in force. So it wasn't by free will.

CONAN: Almost rape by definition, yes.

Mr.�GATES: Yeah, rape by definition under slavery. But some of these relationships, as we saw in Morgan Freeman in "African-American Lives 2," some of them continued after slavery. So they were complex. But the result is that I have never tested a person of African descent for any of the series who is 100 percent African.

The other thing that Carlotta's excuse me Carlotta's, I'm sorry point brings to mind is this week, I was in Baiea(ph) because I've just started filming my new series, called "The Black Americas," for PBS. It's a four-hour series on black culture south of Miami, you know, black culture in the Caribbean and Latin America. And in Brazil, everybody's a mulatto.

I just wrote about this for theroot.com, which you know, the editor-in- chief of is...

CONAN: The Washington Post, yeah.

Mr.�GATES: Yeah, it was posted yesterday, and it's about Carnival in Baiea, which is think Mardi Gras on steroids, really. But it's about the African roots of the Brazilian people and the gradations of Africanity in Brazil particularly.

So essentially to find out who is black and who is not in Brazil, you'd have to give everybody in the country an admixture test. Almost six million slaves went from Africa to Latin America between 1514 and 1867, and most of them, overwhelming percentage of them, went to Brazil. So Brazil is the second-largest black nation in the whole world after Nigeria.

CONAN: Carlotta, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it, interesting point.

CARLOTTA: Thank you.

CONAN: And Skip Gates was talking about these admixture tests and what they can tell us about it. Well, among those he tested in this program is Elizabeth Alexander. She is best known as a poet. She's also a professor of African-American studies at Yale, and in this scene from the documentary, Professor Gates reveals Elizabeth's pie chart to her.

(Soundbite of television program, "Faces of America")

Mr.�GATES: This is what you've been asking about all afternoon. This will tell you your percentage of European...

Ms.�ELIZABETH ALEXANDER (Poet; Professor of African-American Studies, Yale): My pie chart.

Mr.�GATES: Your pie chart. You are 66 percent white.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr.�GATES: So what would you respond, professor of African-American studies?

Ms.�ALEXANDER: It just gets curiouser and curiouser, but of course, if all of us were only known by our DNA, then we'd have a whole different American history.

Mr.�GATES: That's true, we would.

Ms.�ALEXANDER: You know, instead of the bodies we walk around in, right?

Mr.�GATES: That's right.

CONAN: Elizabeth Alexander, the poet who read at President Obama's inauguration, joins us now from her office in New Haven. Nice to have you with us today on TALK OF THE NATION.

Ms.�ALEXANDER: It's nice to be with you both.

Mr.�GATES: Hi, Elizabeth.

Ms.�ALEXANDER: Hi there, Skip.

CONAN: Thinking back to that moment, how did it feel to see yourself in the form of a pie chart?

Ms.�ALEXANDER: Well, one the one hand, it confirmed what I think a lot of African-Americans know about ourselves, and I think it would be wonderful if this series catches the rest of the country up with our fundamental understanding that there is no such thing as pure, that most of us have mixed backgrounds and, as Professor Gates just explained, a lot of that was the result of coerced sexual activity - nothing romantic about it - a way of producing property; that it was the laws of this country that said that if you had one drop of black blood I'm putting "black blood" in quotation marks then that made you a black person, as we now call ourselves African-American person.

So I think that putting together all of these things that many of us know and thinking about where does that leave us now, where does the lived reality, the social reality of life as we experience it in our families, in the bodies that we move around in, how do we amalgamate all of these factors?

And so that's a long answer to the very interesting moment where you see in sort of stark terms that, you know, you have this percentage and that percentage, but does it in any way challenge my understanding of myself as an African-American woman? Not a bit, but it certainly is interesting.

CONAN: Another interesting point is that, through documents, Professor Gates and his researchers show you going back not just to King John of England but all the way back to Charlemagne.

Ms.�ALEXANDER: That's something.

CONAN: That's something.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: But then the interesting point, the question that he asks is, of course you can take the white side of your family back all that way. The black side of your family what, two, three, four generations, that's all?

Ms.�ALEXANDER: Well, further than that but not to Africa, and I think that that's really the point. When you leave these shores in our histories, when you go further back in the way that I think is very natural for human beings to wonder, to want to know where we come from and what's the lore that we get from those long lines and what do we inherit and what do we, you know, configure in different sorts of ways, there's something very melancholic about the things that we just aren't ever likely to know about those African strands.

I was interesting in the juxtaposition on one side of, you know, landowners and King John of England and all of this, an inheritance that, of course, once again is interrupted when black people come into the mix and we come black people, if you were.

But on the other side, with a document that Professor Gates showed me, papers of ownership in 1832 for my - I think fourth great-grandfather - who was a slave, who was owned at the age of two years old and valued at 40 pounds.

So I think that was perhaps the profoundest moment is looking, thinking about those two things together and thinking about how that's ended up with an African-American woman today.

Mr.�GATES: Yeah, it's so difficult to find a slave record with an actual name, Neal, because slaves were property. And in Elizabeth's case, we found this incredible document, Edward, as she said, one of her great- great grandparents, and Edward Honeywell(ph) and Esther Power(ph), more immediate ancestors, and it's a boy named Edward - owned by John Chambers(ph), who was the owner of the Northampton Penn, or plantation, as we would say, in Saint Elizabeth Parish, and there he was.

And I think that Elizabeth I believe that this was much more moving to you than discovering that your 37th great-grandfather was a guy named Charlemagne, born on April 2 in the year 742 A.D.

Ms. ALEXANDER: Well, absolutely. It absolutely was. Because I think also then, when you think about how you get some there to here, that let me - that slave document let me think very richly about American history, not necessarily as a march of inexorable progress toward the present, but nonetheless as a really fascinating history where a great deal has evolved and changed. And it underscored for me the real necessity of understanding our roots as a way of thinking about this complex organism that is the United States.

CONAN: Elizabeth Alexander, thanks so much for your thoughts and your time today.

Ms. ALEXANDER: Okay, thanks for having me.

CONAN: We appreciate it. Elizabeth Alexander, professor of African- American studies at Yale, joined us from her office there in New Haven. Let's get another caller on the line. This is Stephen(ph), Stephen with us from San Jose.

STEPHEN (Caller): Hi. Yeah. My great grandfather went through and tried to reach back as much as he could on my dad's side and found that my family - at least my dad's family has been in the U.S. since before the American Revolution. They originally started out and were - before North and South Carolina became North and South, and then move (unintelligible) Mississippi and from there to Arkansas. And they lost everything in the Civil War, and then again everything under Depression. And...

CONAN: What was the...

STEVEN: (unintelligible)...

CONAN: What was the most surprising thing you discovered, Stephen?

STEVEN: That's - well - I mean, I, kind of knew because my grandparents are from Arkansas and they've lived there forever. But the fact that, you know, one side of my family, my dad's side has been here, you know, for over 200 years, and then my mom's side is from Mexico and they got here - well, on my mom's side, I'm like third generation American.

Mr. GATES: Oh, that's great.

STEVEN: It's kind of interesting for me.

Mr. GATES: Neal, this is - brings up the case of Eva Longoria.

CONAN: Yes, indeed.

Mr. GATES: Now, there's so much immigrant bashing, so much xenophobia about Mexican immigrants, Mexican Americans. Do you know that the we traced Eva Longoria back to her 11th great-grandfather, who was born in Spain, his name was Pedro, Pedro de Longoria, born in the year 1525 in a place called Astoria, Spain. But her first ancestor to come to the New World was her ninth great grandfather named Lorenzo Suarez de Longoria, born in 1592. He comes to the New World in 1603...

CONAN: Hmm.

Mr. GATES: ...17 years before the Mayflower. She has a continuous paper trail, land owners in the New World. Obviously, it was called New Spain then, which became Mexico. And then, about 200 years later, 1767, they moved to La Grulla, which is now in Texas. In fact, La Grulla is where their land has been continuously, has been in five different countries, Neal. It was in New Spain, which then became Mexico, which then became Texas, which then became the Confederacy, and then, after the Civil War, became the United States.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Under five flags.

Mr. GATES: That's right. But her family has been - has a purchase on America older than the descendants of the people who were on the Mayflower. So I wanted to get rid of certain stereotypes, stereotypes of Mexican - or people of color just showed up yesterday. I wanted to show that there were genetic connections between persons of Jewish descent and persons of Arabic descent.

And you remember that Mike Nichols, who's Jewish, Russian-Jewish and German-Jewish, and Mehmet Oz, who's a...

CONAN: Turk.

Mr. GATES: ...a Muslim from Turkey - have identical haplotype.

CONAN: Hmm.

Mr. GATES: So that my larger purpose of celebrating the true democracy, the true triumph of American democracy, which is our diversity, was fulfilled in these two instances.

CONAN: We're talking with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. about his new project. It's called faces of America. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And just to that point, here's an email that we have from Andrew in Concord, Massachusetts. Doesn't the idea of Genealogy go against the idea of judging people by the content of their character?

Mr. GATES: Interesting question. We're not judging anyone. All we're trying to do - all I'm trying to do, to the person who sent that email, is introduce people to their long lost ancestors. You know, at the Temple of Delphi, there was a motto inscribed which is know thyself. And we end the series, I say, know thy past, know thy self.

So it's really not trying to say one set of ancestors are better or worse. I've just I've never met anyone in these series who actually knows there ancestry back more than...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. GATES: ...great grandparents. Queen Noor - a dear friend, a person I admire so much - did not know where her grandfather and great grandfather were buried. And we have a very moving scene when we take her to Woodlawn Cemetery in Brooklyn and to prays at their graves. And then when we stand up, she turns around - I ask her to turn around and look, they - her great grandfather picked this site because it has a direct vision, a direct view to the Statue of Liberty. So that for all time they will see the Statue of Liberty. Now, how he knew that they wouldn't build some skyscrapers between...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GATES: ...I have no idea, but...

CONAN: (Unintelligible) yes.

Mr. GATES: ...the brother was pretty smart.

CONAN: Skip Gates, we've not had a chance to talk to you on the program since your celebrated arrest in Cambridge, Massachusetts. We just have a couple of minutes left.

Mr. GATES: Neal, what arrest was that?

CONAN: Well, I think I saw an exhibit in a museum of the handcuffs that were put around.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: There was a funny interview with you in the New York Times Magazine about this. But I wonder, what's been the fallout of that incident for you?

Mr. GATES: The fallout. Well, I've gotten to know one police officer from Cambridge, Massachusetts very well, Officer James Crawley. He's a very nice man and he - what you're alluding to, of course, is that in the Sunday Times I revealed that he had asked to see me and made a gift of the handcuffs that he had used on that terrible day in July, and it was a very kind, generous gesture. So I talked to my colleagues in African-American studies and my family about what do you do with these handcuffs?

I mean, I did really want them around the house. And they said - all of them said, you should make a donation to a museum (clears throat) - excuse me, so I gave them to the new African-American Museum that's just emerging at the Smithsonian. One thing I could tell you, Neal, it's a lot easier for me commenting on public events than being the person commented upon. It was quite uncomfortable, but I had a lot of support from dear friends and family, and of course the president of the United States...

CONAN: I was going to say - at least you got a beer out of it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GATES: Got a very cold beer out of it. And I think that Officer Crowley -his action was motivated by the spirit of reconciliation inspired by President Obama. And that's the best that could come out of this incident.

CONAN: Well, we'd love to have you on again to talk about this when your book comes out about the Faces of America project.

Mr. GATES: You've got a deal.

CONAN: All right. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. joined us from our member station in Boston, WGBH.

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