What made America? What makes us? These two questions are at the heart of the new PBS series Faces of America with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Building on the success of his series African American Lives (called by the New York Times “the most exciting and stirring documentary on any subject to appear on television in a long time”) and African American Lives 2, Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr. again turns to the latest tools of genealogy and genetics to explore the family histories of 12 renowned Americans. The series premieres nationally Wednesdays, February 10 – March 3, 2010 from 8 – 9 p.m. ET on PBS (check local listings).
Looking beyond the black experience to the wider immigrant experience, Professor Gates unravels the American tapestry, following the threads of his guests’ lives back to their earliest origins around the globe. Along the way, the many stories he uncovers — of displacement and homecoming, of material success and dispossession, of assimilation and discrimination — illuminate the American experience. Professor Gates’ guests include professor and poet Elizabeth Alexander, who composed and read the poem at President Barack Obama’s inauguration, chef Mario Batali, comedian Stephen Colbert, novelist Louise Erdrich, journalist Malcolm Gladwell, actress Eva Longoria, musician Yo-Yo Ma, director Mike Nichols, Her Majesty Queen Noor, television host/heart surgeon Dr. Mehmet Oz, actress Meryl Streep, and figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi.
Our American Stories – Episode One will explore the dynamic and shifting relationship America had with her new immigrants in the 20th century. World war tore apart families; and sundered the fabric of many lives; but America beckoned and millions came. Yet, America was an ambivalent host. At its best, a place of refuge and salvation, as for film director Mike Nichols whose entire family escaped Nazi Germany. At its worst, a country that would imprison two generations of Japanese Americans, like the ancestors of Olympic gold medalist Kristi Yamaguchi. Along the way, we’ll discover the buoyant American optimism that shaped chance – as in a single encounter that changed cellist Yo-Yo Ma’s life forever – to pave the road to success.
Becoming American – Episode Two explores the many journeys to becoming American that defined the “Century of Immigration” (1820s – 1924) and transformed the United States from a sleepy agrarian country into a booming industrial power. Stephen Colbert’s Irish great-great-grandfather escaped poverty and religious oppression in Limerick and never looked back, whereas Mario Batali’s great-grandfather, who left the place where his family had lived for centuries, struggled to survive in the quartz mines of Montana. Her Majesty Queen Noor’s Syrian great-grandfather quickly found his footing in New York’s first Arab American community, while Kristi Yamaguchi’s grandfather faced exclusionary laws and racially-defined barriers to citizenship for decades. The obstacles, short-cuts, tragedies and successes encountered or created by the guests’ ancestors from around the world reveal the complexity of our shared history and identity as Americans.
Making America – Episode Three tells the story of the peopling of the New World, of how land came to define the settling and identity of America, and of how the guests’ ancestors were part of this history. We discover descriptions of Meryl Streep’s eighth great-grandfather who fought in Metacom’s War; records of a land dispute in Spain that pushed Eva Longoria’s ancestors to leave for the New World; a treaty that Louise Erdrich’s Native American ancestor was forced to sign; and Yo-Yo Ma’s family genealogy in China, which gives insights into his identity he has longed for his whole life.
Know Thyself – Episode Four takes up the search for the guests’ ancestries where the historical record leaves off and links their distinctive family histories to the broader history of “the family of man.” Combining the documented stories of some of the guests’ last known ancestors with DNA evidence, the series travel backward through time to reveal both distant relatives and surprising shared ancestral connections. Elizabeth Alexander learns that she is a direct descendent of Charlemagne, and that her paternal roots are not only European, but Jewish. Meryl Streep and Mike Nichols discover that they are distant cousins, as do Yo-Yo Ma and Eva Longoria. Interwoven with these stories and others is the journey of the host, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. as he and his father and brother undertake an historic project to have their entire genomes mapped, and thereby to learn everything they possibly can about their own family. This episode offers a compelling and thought-provoking meditation on the importance of ancestry, the meaning of family and the role of both in creating identity.
Faces of America with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is a production of Kunhardt McGee Productions, Inkwell Films and THIRTEEN for WNET.ORG in association with Ark Media. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., William R. Grant, Peter Kunhardt, and Dyllan McGee are executive producers. Barak Goodman and Sue Williams are senior producers.