Tracing African-American Genealogy: Why It Matters Henry Louis Gates, Jr., chair of African and African-American Studies at Harvard, talks about helping Oprah Winfrey trace her genealogy in a recent PBS special and his upcoming book Finding Oprah's Roots — Finding Your Own.
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Tracing African-American Genealogy: Why It Matters

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Tracing African-American Genealogy: Why It Matters

Tracing African-American Genealogy: Why It Matters

Tracing African-American Genealogy: Why It Matters

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Henry Louis Gates, Jr., chair of African and African-American Studies at Harvard, talks about helping Oprah Winfrey trace her genealogy in a recent PBS special and his upcoming book Finding Oprah's Roots — Finding Your Own.


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Tonight on many PBS television stations a document premieres called "Oprah's Roots". As the name suggests, it's an exploration of Oprah Winfrey's family history all the way back to Africa.

Historian and scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr. narrates the program and tells how he and his team used genealogically records and DNA to fill in the blanks of a story that many African Americans have been slow to come to terms with.

Unidentified Man: When you were growing up did you family ever talk about these people?

Ms. OPRAH WINFREY (Talk Show Host): Absolutely, zero, not. You know this, when you group poor and on welfare that you don't have time to think about what came before.

Unidentified Man: That's true.

Ms. WINFREY: You're just like can I get the light bill paid, and the insurance man is at the door tell, him I'm not home.

Unidentified Man: But we were embarrassed about slavery.


Unidentified Man: That is why it is extraordinary that our generation is embracing our slave heritage.

Ms. WINFREY: Yes, you don't want to…

Unidentified Man: And being proud of it.

CONAN: Tonight's special grows out of Professor Gates' four part series "African American Lives" which premiered last year. And its part of a larger mission on the part to encourage African-Americans to learn about their family history.

If you've done some of that yourself call and tell us what you've learned and how you learned it. Our number: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK.

Henry Louis Gates joins us now from our bureau in New York. He heads Harvard's African and African-American Studies Program. He is also the author of the companion book to tonight's program called "Finding Oprah's Roots - Finding Your Own. And Professor Gates, it's nice to have you on the program today.

Professor HENRY LOUIS GATES (African-American Studies, Harvard University): It's nice to be back on your program.

CONAN: So why Oprah?

Prof. GATES: Well Oprah because - first of all, I wanted to know how Oprah Gail Winfrey, a poor black girl from Mississippi, became Oprah. I mean Oprah is sui generis.

Oprah - there has never been anyone like her and I wanted to see if there was any foreshadowing in her past, through her antecedents that helped us to understand about Oprah.

But the second reason, as you said, we did "African-American Lives" a year ago this coming February and we looked at eight prominent African American's, one of whom of course was Oprah. And we found more about Oprah's slave ancestors than we did any of our other subjects.

And so we decided to expand on what we found about Oprah to tell her story in much more depth, because I wanted to educate particularly the African-American community but the larger world about the African-American genealogical past - African-American history through genealogy.

CONAN: And it's interesting, obviously DNA and tracing roots back to Africa, that's an important an exciting part of this and we'll talk about that in a minute.

But a lot of the research that you're doing is, well, you might call it historical foot soldiering, you go through newspapers, look at tombstones, that sort of thing.

Prof. GATES: That's right archival work. But it's so much fun. First of all, I love it. I was trained in history at Yale as a undergraduate and then in English literature at Cambridge in archival work, textual analysis, recovery work was a fundamental part of my education.

And, you know, I did the recovery of (unintelligible) - the first novel by an African-American woman that was published, and then more recently the Bondwoman's Narrative". That kind of research is fun, but people don't understand it.

In fact, you know what? I think that we can use genealogy and genetics to revolutionize the way that we teach history and science particularly for inner city African-American school children.

If I walk into a class in any inner city school and I said today's lesson is the double helix DNA and why it's a (unintelligible). People are going to say get out of town, right, were not interested in that. But if I hold up a cotton swab and I say if you scrape each of your cheeks 20 times. Six weeks later, I'm going to be able to show you your maternal ancestor and what tribe she came from Africa.

And in the intervening six weeks, were going to study the science that makes that possible. Who wouldn't be riveted with that lesson plan?

In addition, take historical research. If you tell the kids to go and find the newspaper accounts of the original speeches of Frederick Douglas in the 1850s, they're going to say what are you talking about?

But if you say I want you to go home and interview your mother and father and get the names of their mother and father, where they were born, when they were born, and then we're going to take you to the National Archives or your local library and look at records from the federal census and look at estate division records, property tax records, and we are going to fill this blank family tree of yours, each week another rung, another branch all the way back to 1870; and then we're going to show you how you can find the names, sometimes, of your anonymous slave ancestors. Man, kids get on fire to do historical research, and that is the subtext for why I'm doing these series.

I want to - I'm writing these now, new curricula for science and history for inner-city schools. And I'm hoping that they will be adopted, and I'm hoping that they will re-awaken in so many of our children who have lost it, reawaken the love of books, the love of knowledge. Because when we were growing up in the '50s, we were a people of the book, too.

The blackest thing you could be in the '50s was an educated man or an educated woman, and now far too many of our children have lost this understanding of the rich role of education in the African-American past.

CONAN: People, though, tend to romanticize to some degree their family histories. I did a story years ago on Irish people looking for their roots, and everybody who came over and thought they were successors of princes and poets, perhaps both, and very few were, you know, thought that maybe they were, you know, the grandchildren or great-grandchildren of starving potato farmers.

Prof. GATES: Yeah, well you know how that manifests itself in the African-American. You would think that we would claim to be descendents from African chiefs, right? But we do claim to be descended from chiefs, but not African chiefs, Native American chiefs.

One of the biggest myths in the African-American experience is that all of us have Native American ancestry when in fact very few of us do. And when you think about it, it would be illogical for most of us to have Native American ancestry. There were so many more African-Americans and so few Native Americans. I mean the average African-American slave didn't even see a Native American.

But I recently gave a lecture in Atlanta to 600 people, mostly black. I asked them - I asked the engineers to turn the lights up, and I said everyone in here who has a Native American ancestor, raise your hand. The whole room raised their hand, and I said maybe 5 percent of you people have Native American ancestors. That is it.

And it's interesting that among our eight subjects, well nine including me, only Oprah and Chris Tucker had a significant amount of Native American ancestry. And it's logical for them because people forget that until the 1820s and '30s, Alabama and Mississippi were Native American territories, and the Native Americans were driven out. It was a huge, huge burst of the economy. I mean it was a boom time and so white settlers moved in with their slaves and there were still remnants of Native Americans.

So the Native American population and the African-American slave population were contiguous. The same applies to early Virginia. But in most places, like in South Carolina on a big plantation, the average slave never even saw a Native American. It just didn't happen. And that is the myth of the African-American experience.

So I asked each of my subjects: Do you have any Native American ancestry? They go oh yeah, my grandmother had high cheekbones and straight black hair. And then I revealed in the admixture test that they had zero Native American ancestry. It was hilarious.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. GATES: Let's get some listeners in on this conversation. 800-989-8255, if you'd like to join us. E-mail is, and this is Offy(ph), Offy's with us from Cleveland.

OFFY (Caller): Hi, how are you doing?

CONAN: Very well, thank you.

Prof. GATES: Hey, Offy.

OFFY: I'm laughing at that Native American comment, but I do want to add one thing. I traced my Scruggs(ph) ancestry back to the Scruggs plantation in Franklin, Tennessee, in Williamson County. I've gone back I think - I think the lady I found was my - she was my great-great-grandfather's mother. We did it totally through documents.

Prof. GATES: Was she white or black?

OFFY: She was black.

Prof. GATES: She was black. OK, I didn't know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. GATES: It could be either one, could be either one.

OFFY: It could be, but she was a slave.

CONAN: Could be Native American, who knows?

OFFY: No, she wasn't.

(Soundbite of laughter)

OFFY: I do want to say two things. I think about the Native Americans, what we did find was that we had East African ancestry and that there - I think people forget there was an East African slave trade and some of them did come over here.

Prof. GATES: Yes, that's true.

OFFY: And then I think the other thing is just the emotional impact of seeing your ancestor with no last name and a value, $500.

Prof. GATES: That's right.

OFFY: Me knowing enough about history to realize that the price, or his assessment, told me more about his age and his skills than his name.

Prof. GATES: Absolutely. In fact…

OFFY: …talk about that just a little bit.

Prof. GATES: OK. Well, the first point is about the East African slave trade. Two percent of our slave ancestors came from Mozambique. You see, because of the brilliant study, a database called the Transatlantic Slave Trade Database under the direction of Professor David Eltis at Emory, we now have a census of the slave trade.

We know that approximately 12.5 million Africans were shipped to the New World between 1519 and 1867. But of that 12.5 million, only 500,000 - only 500,000 came to the United States. And now we have a percentage breakdown from the ports all along the coast of Africa of where our slave ancestors came from, where these 500,000 hailed from, and we know that two percent came from Mozambique, 27 percent came from Angola, 16 percent came from eastern Nigeria through the (unintelligible) of Benin, approximately 50 percent came from the area of Senegal all the way down to Benin.

So we can use this database and juxtapose it with the DNA results and begin to extrapolate to find where our ancestors came from because often in the DNA tests you get multiple exact matches, and you get multiple exact matches because people - Africans migrated just like other people. And after wars, of course, women were the prize or the booty of war, as the expression goes.

So let's say the Yoruba people defeated the Igbo people, they would take the Igbo women in tow. Five hundred years later, you think you're a Yoruba, but genetically you're really an Igbo. So that's the first point.

What was her second question?

OFFY: The emotional impact of seeing your ancestor as a commodity.

CONAN: With a value, yes.

Prof. GATES: Oh, my goodness. I think the most moving part of tonight's program to me is when Oprah - I show Oprah the people most likely who were her great-grandparents under slavery, and she just cries. I mean it's such a poignant moment, and they're listed there, as she says, with the cows and the chickens and the horses and the eggs.

And these - and it just says male, 23 years old, and that's her great-great grandfather, Constantine Winfrey, who is really the hero of the series without a doubt. Constantine Winfrey was the baddest brother in Mississippi. In 1870, he was illiterate. In 1876, the year that Reconstruction ends, he walks up to a white man named John Watson(ph) and says I will pick eight bales of cotton, clean cotton or lint cotton, in two years, which - and that weighs 3,200 pounds.

To yield that much lint or clean cotton, you have to pick much more, like maybe twice as much, say 6,000 pounds of cotton. This is while he's supporting a family of eight being a farmer, a sharecropper. And it was so audacious. And he said in return, to John Watson, you'll give me 80 acres of prime land with a stream going through it and some timber which he could cut for profit.

And we know that he was successful because I hand Oprah on camera the land deed. John Watson dies but his widow and son honored this crazy agreement, and in 1881 they turn over this 80-acre plot of land to Constantine Winfrey. And Constantine Winfrey, in the intervening years, has mastered the arts of reading and writing because he signs his name with a bold hand.

You could look at every textbook ever written about African-American or American history and you will not find a story like that, when a slave goes up to an ex-Confederate, makes a deal, delivers the goods and the ex-Confederate honors the deal.

You want to know why Oprah Winfrey's Oprah Winfrey? Start with Constantine. And in fact in 1910, when the white community was shutting down the colored school, as we would have said then, Constantine Winfrey has the black school moved on to that 80 acres to protect it, educating the community.

CONAN: Offy, thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it.

OFFY: And thank you for your time.

CONAN: Bye-bye. We're talking with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who narrates tonight's program on PBS, "Oprah's Roots." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And I did want to ask you before we leave today, you've been going through something over the past several months, leg extension. Why is this?

Prof. GATES: That's right. I had - the whole time that you've known me, and this is not the first time we've been together on this program.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: No, it's not.

Prof. GATES: Since I was 25, I've had a two and a half inch difference between the lengths of my legs. I had a misdiagnosed common hip condition when I was 14 in the hills of West Virginia, and there were various complications. And I had three hip replacements and that left my right leg two and a half inches shorter. And I went to the hospital for special surgery in New York to fix a broken ankle, and they said, well we can fix your broken ankle and we can lengthen your leg, and we can make your legs more or less equal.

And so I have five operations between December 8th a year ago and this December 12th. This December 12th, I had a four and a half hour operation a month ago or so, and they lengthened my leg. They broke it on December 8th last year and pulled it apart a millimeter a day for three months, and then it took six months for it to fill in.

It's called limb lengthening, and anyone who's interested in this should look at on the Internet. Dr. Robert Rozbruch and Dr. Svetlana Ilizarov, and now I am wearing more or less normal shoes. My leg has grown two inches in 12 months.

CONAN: Unbelievable. Can I - if I could use from the vernacular - ow!

Prof. GATES: Yeah, it hurt. I lost about 15 pounds. People say you look great, how'd you lose the weight? I said…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. GATES: It's called the (unintelligible) diet, the pain diet. But yeah, it was a tough year, but it was a good year. And I feel - I mean I feel like a new person. It's quite amazing.

CONAN: It's interesting. As a child - I read something you wrote - you were raised to be a doctor.

Prof. GATES: That's right. I was raised to be a doctor. My mama, God rest her soul, Pauline Augusta Coleman Gates(ph) wanted two doctors. My brother, Dr. Paul Gates, is the chief of oral surgery at Bronx Lebanon Hospital. And there's little old Skippy Gates(ph), the baby, as my mother would say, bringing up the rear.

But when I got my Ph.D. from Cambridge, she used to say: Well you're a doctor anyway, just a different kind of doctor.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Sort of a doctor. Just by the unbelievable coincidence, I used to work as an orderly as a kid in high school at the Hospital for Special Surgery.

Prof. GATES: Oh, you did?

CONAN: Yeah.

Prof. GATES: No kidding. Well, that's - well, I think it's the best bones hospital in the United States.

CONAN: You're not going to get an argument from me.

Prof. GATES: No, it's a good thing.

CONAN: Henry Louis Gates, Jr., thank you so much for being with us. We appreciate your time today and good luck with your leg.

Prof. GATES: Thanks, brother. See you soon.

CONAN: Henry Louis Gates, the W.E.B. DuBois Professor of the Humanities and director of the W.E.B. DuBois Institute for American and African-American Research at Harvard University. He narrates tonight's special, "Oprah's Roots," to be broadcast on many PBS stations and joined us today from our bureau in New York with two legs of roughly the same length.

I'm Neal Conan, NPR News in Washington.

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