The Interconnected Black and White Americas

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. with Harry Connick, Jr.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. with Harry Connick, Jr.

Thus far, we have filmed four of our twenty five guests for “Finding Your Roots:” Harry Connick, Jr., Branford Marsalis, Kyra Sedgwick, and John Legend. So, four down, twenty one to go. It is a lot of work, and takes a lot of time researching a person’s family tree and then filming them. Lots of travel, lots of research, lots of preparation; writing and editing the scripts with the producers, until each story, each “reveal,” is just right. And imagine trying to keep the key details about dozens of somebody else’s ancestors straight in your head. I can’t even remember the names of my cousins’ kids at family reunions, marriages, funerals. Can you? Doing someone’s family tree is like watching hours of someone else’s family films or “The Greatest Vacation We Ever Took,” then having your admission to college dependent upon passing an exam about each shadowy figure. Try it sometime! But being able to make this series is such a blessing, such a miracle to me. I’ll be sad when we reach our final guest in this new series, Guest Number 25. I always am.

 

The coolest thing about meeting each of these people is, without a doubt, how eager they are to be reunited with the members of their extended family; long-lost ancestors whom they have usually never heard of, and whom they will never meet. I always thank each guest for allowing me to introduce them to their ancestors whose experiences, ambitions, triumphs, and failures somehow shaped the persons that they are, both existentially and genetically. We are the sum of our ancestors: sometimes more, sometimes less. These familial shades surround our existence, and shape it, sometimes like guardian angels, sometimes like demons. It is quite a wonder.

I think the biggest surprise for me so far is how inextricably intertwined the history of white Americans is with black Americans. This turns out to be true even at the level of the genes—not the genetic makeup of the two white Americans we have filmed, but definitely the genetic makeup of Branford Marsalis and John Legend. Let me explain both points. Let’s start with the family tree of Harry Connick Jr.

The first time I ever heard Harry Connick, Jr. speak (on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” I think), I actually thought he was black! When I heard Jay say something about New Orleans, I understood. New Orleans has always been the ultimate site of cultural, racial, social, political, and, genetic crossing in the United States. Black people and white people there have been mutually constitutive—that is, they have created and recreated each other from the get go. It is no accident that Jazz, America’s original and salient gift to world civilization, would be created there. And in a place called “Congo Square!” Who knew that almost 25% of our ancestors brought to this country as slaves came from the kingdoms of Kongo and Angola. That fact is reflected in the name of the birthplace of Jazz. Black people and white people from New Orleans are resemble each other more than they resemble any other Americans. Just go there, close your eyes, and try to determine whether a speaker is white or black. Bet you can’t; at least I know that I can’t. Harry’s voice reflects that marvelously compelling blend of cultures.

And so does his family tree. While my producers won’t let me divulge any of the great stories that we shared with our guests until the series airs next March, I can say that Harry told me that his first ambition as a child was to be black! As a child playing jazz in New Orleans, as a student of Ellis Marsalis, Jr. (yup, Branford and Wynton’s father!), he wanted to fit in. All of his musical idols and heroes were black people. So, he wanted to be black, too. He walked, talked, and dressed “black” as a teenager. He did this so much so that one of his closest teenage friends pulled him aside and said that he was embarrassing this friend’s parents!

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. with Branford Marsalis

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. with Branford Marsalis

And then there is the story of Branford Marsalis, part of that amazing family of musical geniuses. His father, Ellis Marsalis, Jr., was Harry’s piano teacher. (Branford and Harry have been friends since they were kids.) Again, I can’t divulge the surprise, but perhaps the most important ancestor on Branford’s family tree is a European man from Germany who arrived in New Orleans in the middle of the 19th century. This man made a crucial life choice that no doubt shocked his German family back home, and probably raised a number of eyebrows in New Orleans as well.

 

We filmed Branford and Harry two days straight in New Orleans in the sweltering heat of June, the former at historic Preservation Hall. I kept thinking that the ghost of Fats Waller, Sidney Bechet, or Louis Armstrong himself was about to drop in anytime. After we completed Harry’s interview the second day, they both took me to the Ninth Ward, an area severely devastated by Katrina. They wanted me to see the “Ellis Marsalis Center for Music,” the centerpiece of a “Musicians Village” that the two have created in the wake of Katrina’s devastation. The Musicians Village is part of a sustained and creative rebuilding effort that includes no less than 82 brand new homes ready for occupancy. Branford and Harry have donated all of these homes. How fitting, I thought, that the community center is named after Ellis Marsalis, the man who brought Branford and Harry together in the first place. I wonder if the two boys, observing each other as Harry mounted the steps to Branford’s house for his piano lessons, ever dreamed of how close they would become: as close as brothers? And how fitting that the center commemorates New Orleans’ sublime tradition of Jazz.

 

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. with Kyra Sedgwick

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. with Kyra Sedgwick

And what in the world does Kyra Sedgwick—blond haired, and blue-eyed—have to do with black folks? Well, it turns out, surprisingly, that Kyra Sedgwick’s and John Legend’s ancestors both played pivotal roles in different court cases involving slavery Kyra’s ancestor served as a lawyer, and John’s ancestor as the client. Coincidentally, both individuals prevailed…well, sort of. Tune in and find out. But both of their ancestors have ensured by their actions a permanent place in the history of the abolition of slavery, and in African American history. I bet you never thought of that when you watched “The Closer,” or bopped to John Legend on his current tour.

 

For some reason when I met John near his home in Soho, between gigs, I couldn’t get a certain hymn out of my head. Inexplicably, a line or two just insisted on coming out of my mouth. John was amused. I used to sing in the Walden Methodist Church choir back home in Piedmont, West Virginia, when I was a boy, but that was a long time ago! I was out of practice, but hoped I was in tune. When we finished our three hour long interview, we asked John if he would play something on the lovely grand piano in the apartment we had rented for the shoot. His manager, Hassan, a patient and tolerant man, told us that we had to make this quick, and that John was already late for an important appointment. When John sat down, I was shocked when he sang all the verses of the hymn that had been haunting me all morning long. What a mensch; what a gift. It brought tears to my eyes, and made me forgive him for choosing the University of Pennsylvania over Harvard when he was admitted to both at the age of 16! Well, maybe if I get a couple of tickets to his concert with Sade concert in Boston I can manage to forgive, and forget!