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Series Looks at Notable 'African American Lives'

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Series Looks at Notable 'African American Lives'


Series Looks at Notable 'African American Lives'

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

It's reported that after collecting stamps and coins, the next biggest hobby in the United States is genealogy, tracing one's ancestry. For many Americans, that means looking back through records and finding names. For many African Americans, the names and the records just aren't there, and the search for one's roots becomes much more complicated.

That search is the subject of a documentary, the second installment of which will air tonight on PBS. It's called AFRICAN AMERICAN LIVES, hosted by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who helped some prominent black Americans find their family history, among them, Oprah Winfrey, comedian Chris Tucker and musician Quincy Jones.

Here is Jones, getting the results of a DNA test from Gates.

Dr. HENRY LOUIS GATES Jr.( Harvard University): This is the results of your mitochondrial tests.

Mr. QUINCY JONES: Wait a minute now.

Dr. GATES: It reveals, Quincy, that you have 34% European ancestry, which is very high for African Americans. The average African-American has 20% European ancestry.

Mr. JONES: What? From where?

Dr. GATES: Well, part of this can be attributed to your great grandfather, James Balance Lanier (ph), who was a white man. But given this percentage, it's likely that you have other white ancestors as well.

SEIGEL: Aside from DNA testing, an extensive search of records yielded some incredible stories, many of which will be seen tonight.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. says the idea for this project came from his own, as he puts it, roots envy, of friends who know who their ancestors were.

Dr. GATES: In the middle of the night I got the idea, we're going to pick eight prominent black Americans, we'll trace their family trees back deep into slavery, and then, when the paper trail is exhausted, we will do their Y chromosome analysis if you're a man, and analyze their mitochondrial DNA for all of my eight guests plus me. And that's what we did.

SIEGEL: Now, one thing you come away with after seeing these programs, is that with the aid of DNA and also some pretty serious genealogists out in Salt Lake city and elsewhere, very often family lore is at best incomplete, and sometimes just plain wrong.

Dr. GATES: Oh, that's true. Sometimes it's right, and sometimes it's wrong. I ask each of my guests if they thought they had a significant amount of Native American ancestry, and to a person, they said, oh, yeah, my great grandmother, my grandmother, my cousin once removed, straight hair, high cheekbones. When we did the DNA analysis, only two of the nine had any significant amount of Native American ancestry. This is a myth.

If you think about it, 35 million African Americans today, there are relatively few Native Americans. Those few Native Americans would be busy sleeping with a whole lot of African Americans if that had been the case. In my own family, for years, for centuries, we've know that the white man who fathered Jane Gates's children was an Irishman named Samuel Brady.

SIEGEL: This would have been your --

Dr. GATES: Great, great grandfather.

SIEGEL: Great, great grandfather, yeah.

Dr. GATES: And so we, incredibly, we advertised for descendents of Samuel Brady on these genealogical websites and in the Cumberland, Maryland newspaper. And these two white guys showed up, two Brady descendents, direct descendents. They tested the Y chromosome of these descendents, and then tested me and my father. And to make a long story short, I have nothing in common genetically.

SIEGEL: That is a completely false genealogy that you were raised with.

Dr. GATES: Yeah, and then on camera I have to tell my father, who's 92, and my aunt Helen, who's 89. And I said, daddy, aunt Helen, I took this test, it's genetics, it's science, and I said, we have absolutely nothing in common with Samuel Brady. And they looked at me, well, I can't use, on National Public Radio, the word that they used in response. But let's say it began with a B and it ended with a T. But they said they've been Bradys for a century and they're still going to be Bradys, they don't care about that test.

And, interestingly enough, one of the Bradys emailed me the other day and said he thinks the test was wrong. He thinks that we are related. So, it was some other white man floating around that farm, who fathered Jane Gates's children.

SIEGEL: Yeah, but there's a wonderful truth in your father's reaction, and your aunt's reaction, which is that our sense of whom we're related to and whom we're descended from is not entirely scientific. For example, I mean, one of the issues here is how much European ancestry do people have.

Dr. GATES: Oh, absolutely. We administered a test called an admixture test, which is given by DNA print genomics, and was interpreted by Dr. Mark Shriver, at Penn State. In my case, oh my goodness, I almost had a heart attack. I am 50% sub-Saharan African, and 50% European. You know, this was, produced an identity crisis for me. I guess I'm going to have to start teaching European studies now.

And then, we knew that my Y chromosome, like Quincy Jones's, goes back to Europe. All of my eight guests' ancestry, on their mother's side, all of their ancestry goes back to sub-Saharan Africa, except for mine. And mine goes to that African kingdom called northern Europe. And among the exact matches are several Ashkenazi Jews.

SIEGEL: You know, the man who discovered DNA fingerprinting, Sir Alec Jeffries, I interviewed him this year and he said he never does a test of parenthood whom he knows. Because they're just, too often, we're not talking about your great, great, great, great grandparents, we're talking about your parents now, too often the result is unsettling and surprising to people.

Dr. GATES: Um hm. Oh it is, it's very unsettling to people. But very rewarding was the revelation that they shared genetic signatures with certain ethnic groups or tribes, as they used to be called, throughout Africa. And people responded to that. We even took Chris Tucker to northern Angola to meet people with whom he shared genetic signatures of the Imbundu people, through his father's side.

Oprah was very disappointed that she was not a Zulu. But no African American is a Zulu. You see, there were only 500,000 Africans who actually came to the United States as slaves. Half of us came from ports between Senegal and Ghana. 16% came from eastern Nigeria through the Biafra. 27% came from Angola. And 2% came from Mozambique. That's it. And so your ancestry has to cluster somewhere within those geographic regions. But if you tune in tonight you'll find out where Oprah's from, and each of our other guests.

SIEGEL: Henry Louis Gates, Jr., thanks very much for talking with us once again.

Dr. GATES: Thank you.

NORRIS: Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who heads Harvard's Department of African and African American Studies. His new television series, AFRICAN AMERICAN LIVES, continues tonight on PBS.

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