finding your roots

Condoleezza Rice and the Complexities of Race

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. May 8, 2012

Last summer, in August 2010, I gave a presentation on genealogy and genetics to the board of directors of the Aspen Institute at our annual board meeting. After showing a clip from our previous PBS series, Faces of America, I talked about the recent American fascination with finding one’s roots. So many generations of Americans have tried to forget their roots, their origins, their “non-Americanness.” But it seems that the era of willful forgetting is over. I told the board how we go about finding a person’s ancestors, and shared some of my favorite stories from African American Lives and Faces of America. I also introduced them to the wonders of ancestry tracing using a person’s DNA.

As I returned to my seat, I saw Condoleezza Rice talking with Madeleine Albright. I recognized an opportunity and jumped at it. Both women agreed right away to be in the series. “Of course,” Madeleine joked, “we will be great for the series. We have the same father!” Madeleine was referring to the fact that her father, Joseph Korbel, was Condoleezza Rice’s mentor at the University of Denver.

After researching Condi’s genealogy, we were able to take her back to two generations of slave ancestors. A notable story arose when we found her great, great grandmother Sinai or “Zina,”a single woman who bore five children. It is exceptionally fortunate when an African American can discover two generations of their slave ancestors by name. Condi reflected at the end of our interview that she came to our session thinking of herself as the descendant of strong black men. Instead, she left realizing that her life and career stem from the accomplishments of strong black women. On the DNA front, both Condi’s female line and the male line of her father go to Africa; nevertheless, her admixture reveals that she has a high proportion of European ancestry. This truth shows both the remarkable extent of inter-racial mixing during slavery, as well as the fact that “race” extends far beyond our skin color.

Watch the full Finding Your Roots episode: Samuel L. Jackson, Condoleezza Rice, and Ruth Simmons.



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  • May 24, 2012 at 9:38 pm

    At the time the Condoleeza Rice doc. was being put together, I was contacted by a NY
    film company asking if there was a painting of Francis Cooke. From the email, I thought some one had traced Ms. Rice’s ancestor to the Mayflower. I even wrote about the contact in our E-Newsletter which can be reviewed on our web site. I was disappointed that Ms. Rice’s ancestor was not Pilgrim Francis Cooke.

  • T

    May 25, 2012 at 9:24 am

    Great show Professor Gates!
    Question: Is it a myth that Native Americans had “High cheek bones and straight hair”? Weren’t they infact Africans? There was a time when North America was connected to the western African continent. Please clarify

  • Anthony PArker

    June 2, 2012 at 5:51 pm

    I bet nobody behind the show will ever read these posts

  • Beatrice Hunter

    June 20, 2012 at 6:30 pm

    I have been researching my family history for the past 16 years, and I have gone as far as I can financially and available. I would love to be able to take a DNA study to go further. Please let me know when you will be doing public sampling again. thank you.

  • Ernie Wilson

    July 15, 2012 at 12:31 pm

    Indigenous Americans are indeed of Sub Saharan African descent, as all humans are. Cherokee has a near dead match with East Asian. Cherokee are believed last to walk across the Bering Strait to North America, which would explain the near match.

    There are four family groups in the world.They are European Caucasian, East Asian, Indigenous American, and Sub Saharan African. Condoleezza Rice is a part of all four, as am I.

    We are black Indians aka Sunburnt Indians. Dr. Rice may be and even probably is an Upper South Melungeon tri-racial isolate. This group includes Abraham Lincoln, Elvis Presely, George C. Scott, Tom Hanks, Ava Gardner Steve Martin, and Heather Locklear. Locklear is a Lumbee Indian.

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About the Series

The basic drive to discover who we are and where we come from is at the core of the new 10-part PBS series Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the 12th series from Professor Gates, the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor at Harvard University and director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research. Filmed on location across the United States, the series premieres nationally Sundays, March 25 – May 20 at 8 pm ET on PBS (check local listings).

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