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Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is the host and executive producer of the PBS program, "African American Lives." This critically-acclaimed series serves as a testament to Professor Gates’s unwavering passion for helping people discover their family history. Read more »
I was fascinated. I wanted to know how I got here from there: from the mysterious and shadowy preserve of slavery in the depths of the black past. I became obsessed with my family tree, and peppered my father with questions about the names and dates of my ancestors, which, ever so dutifully, I wrote down in a notebook.
knew I had white ancestors. My father, his six brothers, and their
sister, were clearly part white. I wanted to learn the names of both my
black and white ancestors. I remember poring over ads in the backs of
magazines that encouraged readers to send in their names and twenty
dollars or so, in exchange for one of those colorful European coats of
arms, the sort one would see hanging on the wall of a castle in England.
I thought about ordering one for the Gates family. I knew it wouldn't
have anything to do with me, necessarily, but who could be sure? As I
got older, I even allowed myself to dream about learning the name of the
very tribe we had come from in Africa.
became an historian, in part, I think, out of this desire to know myself
more fully, which, of course, over time became a desire to understand
others as well: to learn about the past of my people, the African
American people, and, ultimately, the past of my nation. Finding my own
roots has been my lifelong quest ever since my grandfather's funeral.
But there was always a problem in this search. And if you're black, and
have tried to trace your roots, you know it well: slavery. Slavery was,
among many other evil things, a systemic effort to rob blacks of all
family ties and the most basic sense of self-knowledge. With very few
exceptions, each slave had one name only, a first name. And, good luck
building a family tree for somebody who only has one name.
decades of being frustrated by this experience, I decided to do
something about it. Over the past four years, I have been producing a
documentary series for PBS called African American Lives,
which traces the family histories of prominent African Americans back
to slavery and beyond. We track down every little scrap of paper we can
find about our subjects, and when the paper trail ends, inevitably, in
the abyss of slavery, we look at something that our ancestors from
Africa brought with them that not even the slave trade could take away:
our distinctive strands of DNA. With cells collected from the insides of
our mouths, geneticists can compare our genetic material to DNA samples
taken from people on the African continent. The process is a bit like
matching finger prints on "CSI."
series was a risky experiment at first--no one had tried this before--
but it has turned out to be a remarkably rewarding experience. I have
learned more about myself and my people than I ever imagined possible.
And I am very curious, to see what you all think about this work.
parent, as well as an historian, I also encourage you to introduce your
children to their family history. A great way to start is by showing
them photo albums and scrapbooks from the past. That's how my father got
my attention. Look for family documents such as obituaries, birth
certificates, diplomas - - anything that might show your ancestors'
names and details of their lives. Talk to older family members. Track
down distant relatives. And, write everything down! You might also want
to check out A Beginner's Guide to Tracing Your Roots for more ideas.
If you've already introduced your children to their ancestry, how did you go about it?