‘Finding Your Roots’: Henry Louis Gates, Jr. on the Political Importance of His PBS Series

Tambay Obenson
·5 min read

“Finding Your Roots” utilizes every tool in its toolbox — from pioneering DNA technology to genealogical sleuthing — in order to reveal the previously unknown history of its guests. Spanning the world, the PBS series divulges family ancestry that runs the gamut, and navigating it all is host and executive producer Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, Jr., who also serves as the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University.

The show started airing its sixth season this month, and it is among the top three performing shows on PBS, according to analysts using Nielsen data. The participants in the series is an impressive roll call a mile long, including Anjelica Huston, Mia Farrow, Ava DuVernay, Jimmy Kimmel, Sterling K. Brown, RuPaul, and many others.

“When people sit down, they don’t know what we’re about to hit them with, because history is infinitely more complex and inventive than even fiction,” Gates said. “So it’s an honor to be able to show everybody who watches our series that we’re all immigrants, and at the level of the genome we’re 99.99% the same. That’s the political message of ‘Finding Your Roots.'”

“Finding Your Roots” ultimately evolved from an earlier series he produced in 2006 called “African American Lives,” which focused on the history and legacy of the Black experience in America. With high profile guests like Oprah Winfrey, Quincy Jones, Chris Tucker, and Bishop T.D. Jakes, it was a hit for PBS.

“I, like every African American, has wondered about my roots in Africa,” Gates said about how he came to launch the show. He referenced Alex Haley’s seminal book “Roots” (1976), and the subsequent hit 1977 television series adaptation, as inspirations.

“The ratings were so high, PBS asked me to do another one,” Gates said, and audiences wanted him to broaden the experience. “A woman of Russian-Jewish descent wrote me saying, ‘Look, it’s not fair, you need to do this for everybody because nobody knows their ancestry’.”

The reinvention of the series became “Finding Your Roots,” and the resulting ‘Aha!’ moment for each of the participants can be quite emotionally overwhelming. For example, just watch DuVernay’s rapturous reaction as she learns about a heritage that she didn’t know:

Gates said that the popularity of the series is what in part helps draw big names. The kind of euphoria on display in the DuVernay video has helped make the series very successful, but Gates also does his homework. “I’ll watch movies and I’ll go, ‘Wow, look at that person’ and we’ll put them on a list,” he said. “Then, we reach out to their PR people and the advantage we have is everybody knows about the series now. Then we wait.”

The show’s methods stem from the year 2000, when Gates received a letter from Black geneticist, Dr. Rick Kittles, informing him that there was new science that would allow anybody to trace their genetic line through mitochondrial DNA. “I not only wanted to know about my African American ancestors on this side of the Atlantic, I wanted to know what ethnic group I was from,” he said. “Now, it’s not true in all cases, but it’s true for probably 90% of African Americans that you could analyze their mitochondrial DNA and just see where that line of descent comes from.”

It’s a biology that goes back generations. “I’m lucky, because when I was 19, as an undergraduate at Yale and I was selected for a program that allowed one to take a gap year and I went to the African continent, living with European missionaries,” he said. “By the time I was 20, I had been across the continent. And now we’re able to restore roots to people of African descent, but also to everybody else.”

The kinds of revelations that the series publicizes can be very sensitive, and some celebrity guests would rather keep certain unpleasant discoveries private. For example, there was the the Ben Affleck controversy in 2015 when it was revealed that he requested to have a history about his ancestry — that one of his ancestors owned slaves — excluded from his episode of “Finding Your Roots.”

In addition, there are overall privacy concerns related to the technology that’s used. “Sometimes a celebrity will ask me for a private call to make sure that their DNA is kept private,” Gates said. “We have very rigid protocols for protecting a person’s privacy in the DNA database.”

But the series couldn’t be more timely. To demonstrate its power, Gates encourages audiences to watch the episode with the late John Lewis, who died in July.

“When I showed Congressman John Lewis his great-great-grandfather’s voter registration certificate from 1867 — the first member of his family to vote, because of the first Reconstruction Act that authorized former slaves to be registered to vote, I said to him, ‘John, between him and you, nobody in your family was allowed to vote again’ because [Jim Crow Reconstruction-era election laws] took away the right to vote for Black men in the South starting with the Mississippi Plan in 1890,” Gates said. “He looked at that certificate, and he wept like a baby. He just grabbed my hand and he said ‘This is just too much’, and he said ‘I guess the quest for voting rights was in my DNA all along and I didn’t know.’ Man, I cried with him. And It was beautiful.”

New episodes of “Finding Your Roots” air Tuesdays on PBS.

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