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About the Series


About the Series
Intro Episode Descriptions About the Filmmakers Broadcast Dates Credits
Image of a map of West Africa Black-and-white photo of African-American children outside of a schoolhouse Photo of Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Dr. Rick Kittles, in conversation at Kittles' laboratory
Hosted by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., W.E.B. Du Bois professor of the Humanities and chair of African and African American Studies at Harvard University, AFRICAN AMERICAN LIVES, an unprecedented four-part PBS series, takes Alex Haley's Roots saga to a whole new level through moving stories of personal discovery. Using genealogy, oral history, family stories and DNA analysis to trace lineage through American history and back to Africa, the series provides a life-changing journey for a diverse group of highly accomplished African Americans: Dr. Ben Carson, Whoopi Goldberg, Bishop T.D. Jakes, Dr. Mae Jemison, Quincy Jones, Dr. Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, Chris Tucker and Oprah Winfrey.

The series works to restore the participants' lineages in reverse chronological order. Starting with the oral histories of the individuals' families, and drawing on photographs, film clips, music and early personal records, Professor Gates begins to trace their family trees back through the 20th century. Noted historians and expert genealogists around America help fill in missing branches, in the process explaining how such major events as Jim Crow segregation and the post-World War I "Great Migration" from the South to the North helped shape African-American families.

Professor Gates' genealogical research becomes increasingly difficult as he works back through the Reconstruction, Civil War, Colonial and early slave trade periods in American history. When the genealogical road comes to an end, he turns to some of the country's leading scientists who are involved in cutting-edge work using DNA samples to trace ancestral roots to Africa. Finally, Professor Gates joins one series participant in the last leg of the journey, across the Atlantic to the western coast of Africa. There, they visit an area where genetic, historical and anthropological evidence suggests the participant's ancestors lived.

For some Americans, the essential question -- "Where do I come from?" -- cannot be answered; their history has been lost or stolen. But through genealogical research and groundbreaking DNA analysis, AFRICAN AMERICAN LIVES not only provides a transformational discovery for several prominent African Americans, but also serves as an example for all Americans of the empowerment derived from knowing their heritage.

Photo of Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Chris Tucker, and the chief of the Anglolan village whose population, genetically, shares close ancestry with Tucker
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