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The motivation behind FACES OF AMERICA

Q. What makes FACES OF AMERICA so special?

skipblog_1Gates: After my work on the African American Lives series, I got thousands of letters from people all over America saying, “Why not do my history?” So, I decided to do the same kind of analysis and research on people of Irish, Italian, Japanese, Chinese and other ethnicities, and the results are just as dramatic as in African American Lives. All of the guests on FACES OF AMERICA were deeply moved by what we revealed about their ancestry. We were able to trace the ancestry of Native American writer Louise Erdrich back to 438 A.D. We found that Queen Noor is descended from royalty, and that’s before she married King Hussein of Jordan. We found that the African American poet Elizabeth Alexander is related to the emperor Charlemagne!

We went even further and used DNA analysis to look for “deep cousins” — common ancestors among our guests — and we found genetic connections between eleven of our twelve guests. I found that despite all our apparent differences in terms of culture and history, we are all the same.

Q: So what’s next for you? Were you left with any questions after completing FACES OF AMERICA?

Gates: I found it astonishing that some of our guests, despite their ethnic differences, were related. I would like to do a series about sequencing the human genome, and also analyze more human diversity among other ethnic groups – a FACES OF AMERICA 2.

  • Renate

    Dr. Gates,
    First, let me begin by saying that I have the utmost respect for you. Your life, your character, and your intellect have impressed and inspired me, and I’m ever so proud of you for the leadership you have provided the Black community – just by being you.

    I applaud you for the work you are doing with your Faces of America and other genealogy-related projects. However, I belong to a large contingent of family researchers who feel that our demographic is being ignored, and more importantly, that the challenging and time-consuming work that we are doing to discover our own heritage is being minimalized in the presentation of the recent wave of genealogicall/family history programming.

    I would like to invite you, Dr. Gatres (and anyone else reading this) to read two blog posts which were made in the last 24 hours. One is my own, which can be read at; I originally made my comments in response to a post written by one of my “genea-friends”, Luckie Daniels, in which she wrote an open letter to you. You can read Luckie’s post, here.

    Both Luckie and I are avid researchers, who have been working for years to discover our families’ roots.

    I congratulate you, Dr. Gates, on the work you are doing. Prayerfully, you will consider including everyday folk, such as myself, Luckie, and the hundreds of other African-American (and other) reseachers who are on an unending quest to uncover the past.

    Renate Sanders

  • Dara

    I’m really looking forward to this mini-series. I love genealogy and how it truly shows how connected we all are to each other. There’s so many questions I have about my own genealogy, this show has really made me want to research more.

  • Faye Kirk

    I am African American. I did not know there was an African American series. It sounds interesting.
    Where can I buy a dvd? It’s ok, to reply to my private email if necessary.


  • Brenda Demery

    I am truly grateful to Professor Gates for both reviving and kindling an interest in genealogy among Americans. While it is fascinating to learn how much we share as Americans, I have a special interest in African American genealogy. Due to the unfortunate circumstances of The Middle Passage and Antebellum Slavery, the histories of so many African descendents in America was either lost or stolen. Reclaiming as much personal history as possible serves as a balm of healing and a basis for understanding our own lives and cultures.

    As one can perceive, I am passionate about genealogy! I would love to see Professor Gates host a series which focuses on the lives of us plain old ordinary folks. Many of us have spent hours poring over microfiche in NARA and Family History Centers and travelling to courthouses across the country in efforts to locate clues about our ancestors. To those of us with limited funds, our efforts are costly albeit labors of love.

    In 1991, before I knew of Professor Gates endeavors and contributions, I was introduced to another ‘Skip.’ Herman ‘Skip’ Mason, a Morehouse College History Instructor, who served as a launching inspiration toward my own genealogical quests. I have discovered a treasure chest, but the ancestors call on us to keep digging for more on behalf of their remembrance.

    I extend my thanks to Renate and to Luckie for their contributions to this blog, and once more to Professor Henry Gates for his work in this area.
    In the ‘Spirit of Sankofa’
    B. Demery

  • Lynn Palermo

    The genealogy community is very much a buzz as we anticipate the premier of Faces of America tonight. We look forward to the world seeing what we have know for so long, what a powerful tool genealogy can be in understanding ourselves.
    The Armchair Genealogist

  • Charles

    After reading Renate’s rant on her blog. She has a few very good points. One suggestion that I have is a Faces of America, Behind the Scenes episode that shows the work that you and your researchers went through, tips and advice.


  • Tata

    This documentary by Mr. Gates is awesomely superb why? every person deserves to know about their family history the most important of all and it’s a privelege to have that knowledge however bad or good it is. It emotionally struck me because I have no family history I know very little about my mom’s side of the family and about my dad I thought I knew until I turned 25 and the big truth came out that he was really my step father . Today I don’t speak to my mother because she still denies the truth of my birth. And, I have been very depressed ever since because I don’t have a name, a face , a picture nothing what so ever that could connect me to my real father. Every human being has the right to know who there biological parents are this is a basic need like food and just to deny your own child of it is a to commit a homicide of their identity. I am trying to do my own research but withought the basics its almost impossible. Its not like I could go to my mother’s country because everything happened here and I really know nothing of my own mother’s past . Well I just wanted to share this with Mr. Gates and with all of those that might read this … and maybe there is someone out there just like me that their parents forced them to live a lie and after entering adulthood they find out their real truth, well you are not alone there are 1000’s like us all over the world and we have begun to tell our stories.

  • Renate

    After reading Charles’ comment a couple of days ago, I was a bit offended by his characterization of my comments on my blog as a “rant”, but after consulting with a couple of genea-friends about whether or not it deserved a response, I’d decided to let it go. However, in further reflection, I’ve decided to return with a definition and a couple of disclaimers.

    First, I take issue with my blog comment be labeled, referred to, or otherwise characterized by anyone as a “rant”. As taken from, here’s the meaning of this term:

    –verb (used without object)
    1. to speak or declaim extravagantly or violently; talk in a wild or vehement way; rave: The demagogue ranted for hours.
    (rant. The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004. (accessed: February 15, 2010).

    Certainly, few readers would be just in defining my comments this way, and I certainly prefaced my concerns about the program with glowing compliments about Dr. Gates and a positive acknowledgment of his work (and the show). I don’t believe my comments to have fit the mold of the definition above in any way.

    Secondly, I’d like to clarify that my intention in sharing my comments on this blog was only to bring direct attention to its readers that there are people out here who are working very hard to discover our ancestry, and that perhaps it might behoove the writers/creators of FOA and other shows like it to consider reaching out to someone who is doing just that. My goal was not to bring attention to myself, nor to any other particular researcher. It was simply to share my thoughts on a topic which had already been opened up with another group of readers.

    May all who read and reflect on my comments be blessed.


  • Carole

    I agree with Renate. It’s all well and good to further genealogy by showing “famous” people on the program. However, it would be nice to see an ordinary person’s past researched. My research into my ancestors was sparked by my mother, now deceased and has been on going for 25 years. Although my first ancestor arrived in America in the mid-1600’s I have been unable to trace their country of origin. Year after year my frustration builds as I strive to find out my ancestors country of origin. Oh, if only a “genealogy fairy” were to arrive on my doorstep and grant me three wishes I would be in heaven!

    I will continue to read books, blogs and research like crazy until I die…and of course watch television productions such as Dr. Gates’ to further my knowledge of research. The more people get interested in their past the more tools will be developed. Thank you Dr. Gates for your work in this most interesting field.


  • Karen Laukkonen

    I love the show. Really liked your original series, especially the Oprah one. Could see the people that made her what she is now. I often mention that show to people.

    Wished that you followed one person at a time, rather than jumping between people. Just when I get excited about their story, it moves to someone else.

    Otherwise, looking forward to next episode!

  • Jack Ruple

    Prof Gates!!
    Thanks for the inspirational and educational series you’ve presented!!! Not since Roots have we been so inspired as family history fans!! My heritage is German-speaking Swiss, with my direct ancestor emigrating with wife and children from the village of Fuellinsdorf, Switzerland just 6 miles south of the Rhine (near a Roman settlement of Augst). He was still bound by the Feudal system and had to be manumitted or freed before departure, was taxed 10 percent of his property, and risked further taxing along the Rhine where the local Lords often had castle “toll booths.” If the family survived these ordeals and arrived as mine did in Charleston, SC, they may then become re-enslaved to pay for their passage if they could not afford the trip over.
    DNA study has corroborated paper genealogy to place the origins of my immigrant in this Swiss village.
    Please do more on the “common man” in AMerica and his family’s origins – your genome ideas sound great – Keep up the great work – it inspires us all to better document and establish our muticultural American heritage!!

  • Wayne

    I find Eva Longoria’s genealogy particularly intriguing as many of the “Spaniards” who came to the New World were Converso’s fleeing prejudice and persecution at home. Although she carries no Y-chromosme by which to trace her European predecessors, I’d be very interested to see what her DNA analysis turns up.

  • Wayne

    I’d like to take Renate’s suggestion one-step further. Many times I’ve been tempted to write the producers of History Detective to suggest they aperiodically feature a genealogy research project in re the family of someone picked from a pool of write-in volunteers. Although History Detective would be a great venue for this, Faces of America would be an even better fit. I envision a show using the current format but larded here and there with stories about the families of “folks like us”. In this vein, I’d throw into the hat the name of my maternal grandmother who was illegitimate–although I’m an accomplished researcher, I’ve never been able to figure out who her dad was.

  • Lora

    Dear Faye – there are actually two African-American Lives series (1 and 2) both hosted by Dr. Gates. You can purchase both DVDs through

    I borrowed each through our public library system via Inter-library-loan.

    (You might also be able to watch them online, though I’m not sure about that.) Enjoy!

  • Mary

    Thank you PBS and Mr. Gates. These stories are the stories of us. They are the souls of the American people. All their stories are heart wrenching because of the drive to be free. The stories hit you in the gut because of the intolerance across all ethnicity. Oddly, through it all they perservere these injustices and then…..their children and their children’s children are “us”. I often wonder if wars would still be fought if we sought to seek our genealogy and DNA connections. It is a very powerful tool.

  • Will Schroeder

    I have been enjoying Faces of America and Mr. Gates’ painstaking research. But there is one fact that, by its omission, I find irksome. Looking back in time, each generation doubles the amount of progenitors available for scrutiny. The path to the past continues to fork: One has 2 parents, 4 grandparents, 8 great grandparents, etc. Finding an illustrious ancestor 10 generations back is not hard to do because one has 1024 to choose from. It is cherry picking to choose celebrities and unveil only their illustrious bloodline when certainly they have a wide variety of heroes AND villains in their past, just as all of us do. We Americans are poor at math and excellent at pretty fairy tales, and this lack of empirical clarity poorly serves the viewing public by perpetuating myths of pseudo-royalty. You may say I’m being persnickety, but this sort of disingenuous celebrity worship has a pernicious effect on our supposedly equality-minded society.

  • Jay

    With all due respect to the posters above, there are market forces involved here that we can’t overlook. No corporate sponsor is going to Mr. Gates a bag of money to televise the genealogy of Joe Schmo to a national audience, nor will a station give him the air time. I’m sure each program concept went through unending rounds of pitching and revamping just to get the support he got.

    And to his credit, Mr. Gates HAS included a poet, a classical musician, and several authors in his mix, not just people with Hollywood ties. AND, in his “African American Lives 2″ presentation, he had the opportunity to include an “ordinary civilian”. As much as I would love him and his research network to “do me! do me!”, nobody would care enough to watch save a few die-hard fellow family historians. And maybe my cousins!

  • Jay

    I’m sorry – I should have written “Dr. Gates”.

  • Art

    Will Schroeder did a great job of explaining my angst with FOA. I can understand genealogically tracing back to a 23rd great grandfather and even a 75th great grandfather, but I have trouble when the descenadant is female and the program brings “her” DNA into the picture and then pinpoints “her” ancestry to that 23rd great-grandfather, or 75th as if done through “her” DNA sample. If this can be done, please expalin how. It certainly isn’t through the DNA testing being offered to the public by FTDNA, 23&me to name just two.

    Heck, I’m back only 10 generations genealogically speaking to a 7th great-grandmother, one (1) of 1024 ancestors, but my testing of mtDNA and/or autosomal testing does not pinpoint to that 7th great-grandmother specifically. How does FOA do that?

  • Sandi

    Thanks to Will S. for bringing in the arithmetic and highlighting the cherry-picking aspect. I felt frustrated that no air time was given to how the research was accomplished, how long it took, and not incidentally, what it cost — including the preparation of what appeared to be gift books for the celebrities. Now you’ve pointed out the nuance of selecting certain ancestral lines to emphasize for each person. In other words, when they boasted of being able to identify someone’s umpteenth great-grandparent, they could have reminded the viewing audience of what a small fraction of his/her maternal or paternal ancestry this actually represents.

  • A.D. Powell

    Why didn’t they give Malcom Gladwell’s admixture results?

    I’m guessing because he was “too white.” Remember that Gates (who denounced the late, legitimately white-identified Anatole Broyard as “passing for white” and “really black”) has been working hard to push the “one drop” myth for a long time. I once heard him repeat the “law of the land” nonsense about the one-drop myth on Book TV.

    Elizabeth Alexander, by contrast (AA-identified and not as white in looks as Gladwell), fits the myth that “mixed race = black” that Gates is trying to promote. That may also be why he took pains to tell us that Stephen Colbert and Meryl Streep are “100% white.”

    I’m guessing that the real reason Louise Erdrich refused to have her DNA tested is because many tribes that intermarried extensively with whites (like her own Ojibwa) have very little NA DNA left. Many people could and would ask, “Why is this woman getting Indian benefits when I have more Indian ancestry than she does?”
    A.D. Powell, former columnist for the web sites “Interracial Voice” and “The Multiracial Activist,” is the author of “Passing” for Who You Really Are: Essays in Support of Multiracial Whiteness.

  • Margaret Buchanan

    I found the entire Faces of America series very moving and thought provoking. In my high school yearbook many years ago I chose for my senior quote:
    “The mind of man is capable of anything – because everything is in it, all the past as well as all the future. “ ~ Joseph Conrad.
    I picked this out of a book of quotations and had not read the book that it came from, Heart of Darkness. At the time I found it hopeful, I think in the book it may have a negative context. Now as an amateur genealogist/historian this quote has a lot more meaning to me.
    I think that criticism of the series for only including famous guests, not showing more details about the research done, and decisions about what information was or wasn’t included, while valid concerns aren’t really that pertinent to the purpose of this series. Dr. Gates accomplished what he set out to show, that “despite all our apparent differences, in terms of culture and history we are all the same.”
    As someone else stated showing a non-famous person’s ancestry wouldn’t have been as interesting to the general public. Thomas Jefferson is my cousin but that’s probably not that interesting to anyone else outside my family. Somehow we all feel a connection to celebrities, like they are part of our family. A lot of viewers not into genealogy could enjoy this show and learn from it and maybe become interested in learning more about their pasts. I’d be interested in seeing a Face of America 2

    Thank you Professor Gates!

  • B. Demery

    It’s not that everyday, ordinary Americans are shouting “do me, do me!” to Prof. Gates.
    It’s the illusion that genealogical research is performed overnight and at little cost to the researcher.
    Unearthing one’s personal family history is time and money to the researcher. Lots of it. This is not revealed on shows like this.


    How well said.

    Passionate about my family research, mostly in the area of their everyday lives and how I have benefitted from their struggles and sacrifice, I also hope they interview common folk.
    Friday night I made an astounding discovery on material I have held in my hand for 28 years! It was not the fact of the material that shocks me- but the fact I have overlooked it for years.
    Again, well done.


    I didn’t see any rant either my friend. Don’t tarry long.

  • Karen

    To Whom It May Concern,

    I have been running into road blocks while trying to reserch information on my paternal grandmother. I would like to hire a professional to help me. How do I go about hiring an genealogy expert?


  • Susan Villegas

    Dear Professor Gates,
    The last time I wrote you was about 2 or 3 years ago about DNA you were so kind to answer my email.

    But now I would like to share something with you because I am writing a book about my family and my great great grandmother Sarah Jane Wilson named her daughter after Hallie Quinn Brown. ( I have thoroughly researched the Browns) My great grandmother is name Hallie Quinn Wilson.

    Sarah came to California 1881by train with two children Leon Wilson and Roberta Wilson. She had to get off the train in Dallas Texas to have her third child Hallie Quinn Wilson and then continued on. I found her and her family in the 1890 Census after she married Charles M. Johnson when she got to California. It list her husband as step father to her 3 children (Leon, Roberta and Hallie).

    During the past 6 years I took a trip to Indiana to visit my half brother, we have never been raised around each other. While I was there I went to the AME church and what are the odds that I would listen to a man play piano in the same manor and style as my grandmother and he’s white looking like me and he was in his 80’s in a black church. I told the minister that I wanted to make a trip to Ohio so I could do further research on Hallie Q. Brown. She said why don’t you talk to brother Shields the man that played the piano he is the grand nephew of Miss Brown. Can you believe that? I felt like that was a God moment! It was a fantastic interview he said he was the one that he found his Aunt dead. I showed him the copy of “Tales My Father Told” that I received from Wilberforce. He said he had nothing to remember his Aunt by so I gave him the tiny booklet. At the end of the interview we wondered if we were related in some way, then he asked me a question “Where did you get your red hair?” I told him it runs on both sides of the family. Then he said “My Aunt Hallie had red hair too”. I got the chills when he said that.

    Professor Gates? I am trying to tie up some lose ends and wondered if you might have any ideas how Sarah Jane Wilson met Hallie Quinn Brown. My thoughts go to education or cousins but I don’t have anything to go by. The trail goes cold before 1890. Sarah was suppose to be from Virginia. One very interesting fact is that when I looked at the death certificate on Sarah it says that her mother was Emily Wilson born in England. Sarah is listed as Black. Others in the family are listed as Mulatto, Negro. Would you have any thing that might help me figure out the puzzle? I have been working on this for 11 years now.

    I will give you another story about our Hallie Wilson she married Frank William Wilson. His father was Cherokee Indian and his mother was of African heritage. He passed down to my grandmother the oral history of the “Trail of Tears” he was born 35 years after the Indians and their slaves were forcibly removed from their homes and began to walk 800 miles so they would be west of the Mississippi River. His mother was probably a teenager. He was the youngest of 13 children and one of three survivors of a terrible epidemic that wiped out the rest of his family and I can retrace their moves from Missouri, Montana and on to Yamaha Washington. Then onto Santa Barbara where he would meet Hallie Q. Wilson.
    I don’t want to turn this into a book but I would love to share this with you because it is a wonderful journey I’ve been taking. Hallie Wilson and her mother Sarah and step father Charles M. Johnson would come to work for the hotel builder Milo Potter in Santa Barbara. You will have to wait until the book comes out but I hope it will enlighten families and inspire them to take a look at the past where they came from and dig for those stories.

    Well it is late and I have just finished doing some late night research and thought about you and wanted to see if their is anything you might be able to shed light on for our Wilson / Brown family connection other than we both have Scottish last names.

    Thank so much for reading all this, I hope this reaches you and we can be in touch
    Susan Villegas

  • Eager Reader

    Dear Professor Gates,

    Yours is one of the most fascinating shows on TV. I wonder if you might be interested in using geneology to research the fate of the millions of Africans who were for centuries enslaved by Muslims? Where are their descendants? The Muslim slavers preferred females (60%) for their home markets, while the opposite was true for the slaves they captured for western markets. American sentiment was sharply divided, and mostly negative, on the subject of having sex with slaves, but the Koran gives explicit permission for the sexual use of slaves. So there must have been millions of babies born of mixed Arab/African or Turkish/African blood. What ever happened to them? Were they killed? Or are their descendants prospering today in modern Saudi Arabia? Do many modern Arabs show genetic evidence of maternal African ancestry? It is a fascinating question.

    Eager Reader

  • Harris Jeangilles
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