Scholar Helps Black Americans Trace Family Roots

Documenting family history is a challenge for many African Americans, further complicated by legacies of slavery and racism. Using DNA technology, scholar Henry Louis Gates is helping black Americans trace their roots. Gates' work is portrayed in the new film African American Lives - 2. Gates talks about his mission.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Just ahead we're going to learn a little bit more about how to trace one's heritage with Gina Paige, president of African Ancestry. It's a company that specializes in DNA analysis.

But first, for many African Americans the idea of tracing a family tree has been little more than a dream. There's the challenge of finding records for slave ancestors who were bought and sold like livestock. There's a struggle to get elders to discuss events that were often scarred by brutality and racism, events they'd rather forget.

Scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. has made it his mission to overcome these obstacles and connect African Americans with the journeys of their ancestors. He's a professor and director of the W.E.B Du Bois Institute at Harvard University.

Gates began with the television program, "African American Lives," back in 2006 when he used research and DNA testing to trace the ancestry of such prominent African Americans as Oprah Winfrey and Quincy Jones.

Now Gates is back with "African American Lives - 2," and he's helping more of the famous and not-so-famous to find their roots. The program debuts tonight on PBS. And Henry Louis Gates joins us now to talk about it. Welcome. Thanks for speaking with us.

Prof. HENRY LOUIS GATES JR. (Director, W.E.B. Du Bois Institute, Harvard): Thanks, Michel, for having me on your program.

MARTIN: Now, you talk about this in the film. You make it very clear why this project is so important to you. But for those who haven't seen it yet, why is it so important to you?

Prof. GATES: Our people have lost their history. Even the best African American history courses just restore the lives of what my father would call the big Negroes, Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois, Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman.

But what, Michel, about the lives of your great-great-grandfather, your great-great-grandmother? What were their lives as slaves like? Well, incredibly, now using the new tools of genealogy and DNA analysis, we can not only reestablish the lives of many of our slave ancestors and show their tales of torment on the one hand, but triumph on the other. When the paper trail ends, we can do your DNA and begin to understand what your African origins were. This is a miracle. No generation of African Americans since the Middle Passage has been able to restore the past as effectively as we can.

The reason that I use the celebrities by and large is, well, for obvious reasons. Nobody was going to fund the series if I didn't. It had to have some kind of hook to seduce people into watching and seduce funders into funding it.

And - but what's happened is we've realized that the true history of our people is still buried in archives. It is in county court records. Now, through Ancenstry.com much of it's been digitized. But you need to know how to look for it. And what my series are - it's like a premier, a teaching guide, how to find your roots, how to find your heritage. And collectively - if we all do our family trees, collectively we can completely retell the history of African Americans in this country.

MARTIN: Well, speaking of big Negroes, you've got - this time around you've got some notables like Chris Rock - comedian Chris Rock, the legendary author Maya Angelou, radio host Tom Joyner, music legend Tina Turner. Of these stories was there one that just shocked even you?

Prof. GATES: Well, the most surprising story was the story that Don Cheadle's family was enslaved. That's not a surprise. But they were enslaved by Native Americans, by the Chickasaw people. And they were marched out of Mississippi in the Trail of Tears, along with all the other Chickasaw, to what is now Okalahoma.

MARTIN: One of the things that you - many of your guests discover is that their sense of who they are is not what the facts show. In fact, here's a clip of actor Don Cheadle responding to the revelation that not only were his ancestors owned by the Chickasaw nation, that they - he is also part white.

Let's play that clip.

(Soundbite of interview)

Mr. DON CHEADLE (Actor): You are what you have to defend, because it doesn't matter that I'm 19 percent European, 81 percent African. In America, I have to deal with the problems that black people in America deal with. I have the struggles and challenges that black people in America have.

MARTIN: That's actor Don Cheadle.

Professor Gates, some people, they react very emotionally to this kind of information. Why do you think that is?

Prof. GATES: I think that it is like looking in a mirror of history and discovering yourself, but yourself as it's unfolded genetically over the last 200, 300 years. We are the sum of our ancestors. We wear our ancestor's heritage on our faces, in our souls, in our characters, through, you know, through environment, through mother's milk. And all of a sudden what was a blank wall is now filled with names, dates, images and stories about people who are just like you. People out of whom you came, people from whom you descended. And you could reach out and touch those stories, read those stories, contemplate those stories again and again.

MARTIN: But a lot of people aren't as thrilled as you were to find out just what the sort of the mixtures are that kind of make up who they are. They're not universally pleased by this information. And I'm just wondering why you think that might be.

Prof. GATES: Well, almost everyone cries when I do the revelation. And these revelations take four or five hours of filming. So I had their - what we call the book of life and I am telling them story after story. And there -inevitably there's stories of pain and suffering.

But the biggest surprise is almost everyone has thought that they were - had a considerable amount of Native American ancestry. And almost none of my 19 guests have had any significant Native American ancestry. Two exceptions were Oprah Winfrey and Chris Tucker. But almost everyone else has zero Native American ancestry. But on the other hand, everybody has a significant amount of European ancestry.

MARTIN: Which raises a question that some people - people of mixed heritage, like Tiger Woods or like Barack Obama become a sort of more prominent - at least that aspect of their heritage is becoming sort of more discussed. Now, some people think that as that happens - that kind of binary black/white dynamic that has so much - so defined American history has to change. Do you think that that's true?

Prof. GATES: Oh, I think that it's true. One of the things the DNA evidence shows is that all of us are mixed.

MARTIN: You say, though, in the film - and I don't want to over observe this point, because you do - there are some just lovely stories of sort of friendship, of triumph, of achievements, wonderful stories - but you also say in this film it's no wonder so many stories have been lost, because who wants to remember all that hate.

Prof. GATES: Yeah.

MARTIN: And we've got a clip of radio host Tom Joyner learning as you pointed out earlier that his uncles were executed for a murder that they probably didn't commit. Let's hear it.

(Soundbite of interview)

Prof. GATES: Five Negroes killed in the electric chair with protestations of innocence on their lips.

Mr. TOM JOYNER (Radio host): It's too late to get a - to overturn the con…

Prof. GATES: Well, no.

Mr. JOYNER: …conviction.

Prof. GATES: It's never too late.

Mr. JOYNER: Clear their names.

Prof. GATES: We can clear - we can still clear their names.

MARTIN: That's radio host Tom Joyner speaking with you. When these stories emerge what is it like for people to discover all the things that their ancestors had to go through?

Prof. GATES: They're stunned. They're awed. But profoundly moved. And many, including Chris Rock, were moved to tears. And when Chris Rock started crying, I mean, I was flabbergasted. I thought that - because he's a comedian and such a brilliant comedy that Chris dealing with the most intense pain would make some kind of joke about it. But he didn't.

I mean, he's just stunned to find out that his great-great-grandfather Julius Caesar Tamain(ph) was a slave and then when Charleston falls in April, 1865, the next day he joins the U.S. color troops like "Glory" - we all saw Denzel in "Glory" - and serve and fights the Rebels - the Confederates - to free other slaves. And as soon as the Civil War is over he's elected to the House of Representatives in the state of South Carolina. That is a hero of African American history.

But, Michel, unless we all do our genealogy, we're not going to find heroes like Julius Caesar Tamain, because he's not on the level of Du Bois and he's not on the level of Booker T. Washington or Mary McLeod Bethune or Sojourner Truth. That's what I'm saying. We have all these heroes back there. People who were local heroes. People who made a difference and should be remembered in the history book. And once we resurrect these genealogies, all African American history textbooks are going to have to be rewritten.

MARTIN: Finally, Professor Gates, you - we've talked a lot about the power of these stories for African Americans, but what about for people who are not? What do you hope that other Americans will learn from these stories?

Prof. GATES: Well, I conceived of this series as "Roots" for the 21st century. It's a way to get more of our white Americans - not only do black Americans need black history, but white Americans need black history. And brown and yellow and red Americans need black history.

And we, as historians and journalists, have to find new and innovative ways to communicate the message - the great message - transcended message of African American history to the broader population. And that's why one of the things that I do is to make documentary films.

MARTIN: Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard University, where he's also a professor. He's the host of "African American Lives - 2," which debuts tonight on PBS. You'll want to check your local listings for times. Professor Gates, thank you so much for speaking with us. And thank you for this work.

Dr. GATES: Thank you so much, Michel.

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