Documentary Traces Roots of Black Celebrities

A new PBS documentary series uses DNA to trace the roots of Oprah Winfrey, Chris Tucker and other prominent African Americans all the way from slave plantations to the shores of Africa. Ed Gordon talks with the host and producer of the series, renowned Harvard University scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

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ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS AND NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

A new public television documentary series proves how difficult it is for most African Americans to trace their family roots. African American Lives utilizes the latest in DNA technology to go where few genealogists have gone before. It painstakingly follows the family lines of high profile African Americans like Oprah Winfrey, Chris Tucker and Bishop TD Jakes.

I recently sat down with the show's creator and Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates. He says even he learned something about his past over the course of the program.

Mr. HENRY LOUIS GATES, JR. (Producer of African American Lives): They have now found three of my lines, Ed, back to the 18th century, the 1700s, including my fifth great grandfather on my mama's side, John Redman, who fought in the American Revolution, a free negro. You could have knocked me over with a feather, brother. All these stories of our people are buried there waiting to be discovered. And I did this series to encourage every African American to do their family tree and pursue their roots deep into the tomb of slavery and to make that tomb speak.

GORDON: I wanted to ask you that next, because as you and I both know, when Roots first came out, so many people got into this and tried to find their family trees and their heritage, and then it started to die down. I suspect your hope is to fan that flame again.

Mr. GATES: Absolutely. This is certainly motivated by what I call my roots envy, and wanted to do my own roots back to Africa, what you can think of as Roots II, Son of Roots, Roots Post-mod; Roots using the science of genealogy and the science of DNA. And, Ed, the reason that the quest for genealogy fizzled out was that it's so very difficult to find your slave ancestors, because they didn't have two legal names. They only had a first name legally.

GORDON: You looked at a number of prominent African Americans and traced their family heritage: Oprah Winfrey, Chris Tucker, Quincy Jones, Dr. Ben Carson, Bishop TD Jakes among them. Why did you decide to take these people? And what surprised you most in terms of what you uncovered?

Mr. GATES: Ed, I wanted people to watch the series. (laughter) That's the short answer. So I wanted to get prominent African Americans for that reason because I wanted to seduce young African American children, particularly inner city kids, into understanding the wonders of genetics and genealogical analysis. If you and went into an inner city school tomorrow and we said, today's lesson is DNA, the double helix, discovered by Watson and Crick, people would say, what time is recess, man? I want to get out of here. But if we say, like I did, I'm going to swab Chris Tucker's cheek, do his DNA analysis, and then take him to the Mbundu people in Northern Angola, who is not going to be interested in that?

And the other reason, Ed, was that I wanted to show that though these people are extraordinarily prominent today, they came from nothing. Like Constantine Winfrey, Oprah's great grandfather, 1876, he goes to a white man named John Watson, and makes him a deal, Ed. It's an incredible story. He said, Boss, I'll pick 10 bales of cotton for you over the next year, if you give me those 80 acres of prime property that you own. And he must have laughed and said, that Negro ain't going to pick no 10 bales of cotton. Ten bales of cotton, Ed, weighed 5,000 pounds.

And we know that Constantine was successful, because on camera I hand Oprah the land deed written in John Watson's hand saying, because this Negro picked 10 bales of cotton or 5,000 pounds, I am giving him 80 acres of land. And in 1880, Constantine Winfrey is listed in the Federal Census as illiterate. And, Ed, in 1906, when the white community is threatening to tear down the colored school, Constantine Winfrey has that school moved onto his property, brother, and saves the school.

GORDON: And lest we think these stories aren't important, when you look back at people, a people, a collective people who have been successful, often that success has been built on the history and the belief of what their people did before. That is what we have been sorely lacking in our community.

Mr. GATES: Absolutely. Exemplars, examples. I mean, shoot, if you're the first generation, it is always the hardest, because you think, can I do it? Do I have the ability to do it? But if you know, gee whiz, Constantine Winfrey, he made it and he was a slave, then I think that should inspire people. And I also think that knowing these examples should inspire all of us even if we're not descended from Constantine Winfrey.

GORDON: We shouldn't forget the importance, and we talked about roots, but now the technology of DNA does make this a bit easier than it was.

Mr. GATES: Oh, man, are you kidding? All you do is go in the bathroom, take a Q-tip, swab your left cheek 20 times, your right cheek 20 times, let it dry, pop it in an envelope, and two or three weeks later you get your tribal identification back. In addition, Ed, we do an admixture test, and the admixture test will reveal the percentage of the following four ethnic groups in your bloodlines: Native American, Asian, Sub-Saharan African, and European. When Roots aired, if we had tried to do this series, it would have taken us 10 years just to find records. And now these records are digitized.

The way they were able to find so many slave ancestors was that you need to know the white people who owned you. Let's say if your great, great grandfather's name was Gordon, and he was from Talbot County, Maryland. Well, what you do is you look for the white Gordons in the 1860 census who owned slaves. And if you know how old your great grandfather was in 1870, you look for on the slave schedule of the census--though they didn't have names, they had the slaves' ages. So let's say your great, great grandfather was 70 in 1870. You look for a 60-year old slave on the Gordon plantation in the 1860 census. That is your great, great grandfather.

And I never have been more moved emotionally by a research project than I have been by this show.

GORDON: Professor, I've known you a long time. I can hear the excitement in your voice. Four installments of this, and it's on PBS, soon to be on DVD. And as you say, we hope it will fan the flames and start people looking. Always good to talk to you, Professor, and we appreciate you getting us started on this.

Mr. GATES: Hey, thank you, brother. And I love your program. Keep up the great work.

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