Henry Louis Gates, Jr. on the Importance of Genealogy

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. has explored the ancestry of dozens of people from diverse backgrounds on his show Finding Your Roots, including Christiane’s in 2019. Now in its sixth season, the show features guests like Jeff Goldblum, RuPaul, and Queen Latifah. Gates believes family tapestries can offer a sense of stability and joins Walter Isaacson to discuss what he’s learned about race and identity.

Read Transcript EXPAND

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: So, our next guest is the host of Emmy Award-winning show “Finding Your Roots” on PBS. Historian and Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. has explored the ancestry of dozens of people from diverse backgrounds, including mine last year — disclosure. The show is now in its sixth season and includes guests such as Jeff Goldblum, RuPaul, and Queen Latifah. And Gates told our Walter Isaacson how family tapestries can offer a sense of stability in these unsettled times.


WALTER ISAACSON: Skip, welcome back to the show.


ISAACSON: Hey, and congratulations, six seasons of “Finding Your Roots.” It just began again.

GATES: Thank you. It’s a blessing. I love doing this show. And I love the way that people respond. People see me on the street. People write me. People care about retrieving their ancestors. I have a metaphor, which is that I think your ancestors are in purgatory and waiting to be discovered. And when we find them, we unlock the doors, and they tell their story. And their story is really part of your story. You just don’t know it. And…

ISAACSON: We have a wonderful video that shows some of the excitement. Let’s just go to the video, and then we can talk about it.

GATES: That’s great.


STERLING K. BROWN, ACTOR: You hear, like, your friends talk about their German ancestors and their Irish ancestors and Italian ancestors. I can join in that conversation.


JORDAN PEELE, WRITER/DIRECTOR: It’s cool to know that I have — there’s a warrior’s blood.

GATES: This is from your ancestral home. That is from Unterstinkenbrunn.

ERIC STONESTREET, ACTOR: I think the best part of that is that they’re leaving behind a place called Unterstinkenbrunn.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This is so wonderfully scandalous.

ANJELICA HUSTON, ACTRESS: I’m proud of my ancestors. This is a great document.

QUEEN LATIFAH, ACTRESS: My family got balls like this. You know what I mean?

STONESTREET: This is when I’m, like, proud of being from where I’m from.

MELISSA MCCARTHY, ACTRESS: I have always thought the best of us is this combination. It’s taking from everything to make something stronger.

QUEEN LATIFAH: You need to know your history. You need to know your roots.

JEFF GOLDBLUM, ACTOR: This is the best time I have ever had in my whole life.


ISAACSON: Wow. How exciting.


ISAACSON: That’s amazing. And you did my hometown friend Jon Batiste, who comes from a wonderful lineage.

GATES: Yes, we found a couple of amazing stories on his family tree. We found the voter registration document for his great-great — third- great-grandfather, who registered to vote in what I call the freedom summer of 1867, when black men in 10 of the 11 Confederate states, were given the right to vote by the first Reconstruction Act. And he was illiterate because it was illegal to teach the slaves to read and write. And he signed his name with an X.


JON BATISTE, MUSICIAN: That’s powerful. I mean, think about that, just the idea of signing something, signing something. And we take — we take it for granted.

GATES: And this would have been the first thing he probably…

BATISTE: The first thing…

GATES: He signed.

BATISTE: … he signed.

GATES: Right. That’s astonishing, man.

BATISTE: That’s a lot to process.



GATES: And you know what, Walter? Eighty percent of the black men who were eligible to vote in the former Confederacy registered to vote in the summer of 1867. And in 1868, 500,000, cast their votes for Ulysses S. Grant.

ISAACSON: Which gave him the margin of the election.

GATES: Grant’s popular majority was 300,000 votes, so he won overwhelmingly in the Electoral College. Black men had elected a white man president of the United States three years after the end of the Civil War. And Jon Batiste’s ancestor was one of them. We also found out that he was 85 percent sub-Saharan African and 14 percent European. So these are the kinds of things that we try to find for each of our guests.

ISAACSON: You did it with RuPaul too.

GATES: And RuPaul, another Louisiana story. So, an incredible motif has emerged this season, which is a pattern of black people who descended from ancestors who were freed early on. RuPaul’s fourth-great-grandmother’s name was Nannette (ph). Her brother’s name was Andre (ph). They were freed in St. Martin’s Parish in 1804. And then — but their mother wasn’t freed. And they worked for about 15 years to save enough money to free their mother, who was RuPaul’s fifth-great-grandmother. Queen Latifah — Queen Latifah’s fifth-great-grandmother’s name was Juggy Owens. Queen Latifah’s birth name is Dana Owens. Juggy Owens — you ready for this? — was freed in 1792. And we found the manumission certificate. She was freed by a white woman named Mary Old.


QUEEN LATIFAH: “Being conscientious of the injustice and impropriety of holding my fellow creature in state of slavery, I do hereby emancipate and set free” — no way — no way — “one Negro woman named Jug, who is about 28 years old, to be immediate free after this day, October 1, 1792. Mary Old.”

Oh, my God.


GATES: And through another document, we found the name of Queen Latifah’s sixth-great-grandmother, whose name was Grace Owens, who wasn’t freed, but she was born in 1740. So to be able to take a black family back by name to 1740 is quite extraordinary.

ISAACSON: But your own family, your own roots, your own heritage, you are from West Virginia.


ISAACSON: And a real multicultural, multiracial sort of communities there. How did you start figuring out your own roots?

GATES: Well, as a surprise, when we started the series off, I only did black people. We started, it was called “African-American Lives,” Oprah, Quincy Jones, Chris Tucker, Bishop T.D. Jakes, my Yale classmate Ben Carson, my Harvard colleague Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot. So, when we were doing it, just on a lark, the genealogist decided to search for my family tree. And what they found was incredible. They found out that I’m descended from three sets of fourth-great- grandparents who were free, including one fourth-great-grandfather, John Redman, on my mom’s side who actually fought in the Continental Army. I wrote an essay about him for “The Times.” And because of him — he was in the Continental Army from 1778 to 1784. And because of him, my brother and I — my brother, Dr. Paul Gates, is an oral surgeon. We were inducted into the Sons of the American Revolution.


GATES: I mean, you could have knocked me over with a feather. Here’s the punchline. Those three sets of fourth-great-grandparents lived 30 miles, Walter, from where I was born.

ISAACSON: Tell me why this is important for America, for all of us.

GATES: You know, I’m asked that question a lot. And I think that people feel so unsettled. They feel personally erased. It used to be, when we were growing up, my dad worked at the paper mill in the daytime, he worked at the Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Company, had a part-time job as a janitor. He worked two jobs to put my brothers through three degrees at Western University, including the dental school, and me through Yale and then the University of Cambridge. He knew that there was an upward curve of economic progress, that, if he worked hard, his kids could be doctors. I mean, I was raised to be a medical doctor. I almost killed my mother when I got a Ph.D. instead. But I never doubted that was going to go to college. They never doubted that things were going to be better for the next generation and then for my kids.

Now there are many Americans, I would say the majority, who can’t assume that curve of progress. And so people are unsettled. Traditional foundations that provided stability have been rocked. It used to be the church. It used to be economic progress. It used to be that people believed in the Constitution and respected it and the Declaration of Independence. Now all these things are, if not under erasure, at least questioned. So, people are looking for other forms of stability. And one form that they found is right under your own feet, which is the roots that you stand on, the ancestors on whose shoulders that you stand. One way to address your own erasure is to un-erase your ancestors, to establish their identity, to know where you come from. And I think that the political — the subliminal political messages of finding your roots each week are, one, that we’re 99.9 percent the same, no matter where we came from. And, two, there is no such thing as racial purity. Our use of genetics deconstructs the racist notions of white supremacists, that there is — that we’re all pure, that we’re purely black, that race is a centralizer, that there’s such a thing as a white race.

ISAACSON: Sometimes, do you find out things that are controversial, unsettling, that people don’t want to hear?

GATES: Well, one of the most difficult things I have faced involved the ancestry of Christopher Walken. And I’m really worried about this. He comes from a long line of bakers, people who owned bakeries in Germany. And there were two brothers. One came to the States, and one stayed in Germany. And one fight for the Nazis and the other became an American. And I had to tell him that. And we found that details about his service in the German military. And — but I don’t think that guilt is heritable. And I’m very, very careful about revealing unpleasant detail. On the other hand, through the use of genetics, we can basically perform miracles, which is to find biological parents, biological mothers and fathers for adoptees. So it’s complicated. And I also had to tell Joe Madison — get ready for this — talk about owning a slave or what your ancestor did in a war. I had to tell him that the man he had called his father was not his biological father.


GATES: Joe, one of the most difficult phone calls I ever had to make was the Saturday morning when I called you to tell you that that man, Felix Edward (ph) Madison, according to your DNA, is not your biological father. And I didn’t know how you would take this news.


GATES: If somebody told me that, I don’t know how I would take it. It would be a big shock.

MADISON: Well, I appreciated the — your sincerity and concern. And I thought about it, and it just — there was this curiosity. And then the real question is, then who was?


GATES: It’s a big responsibility. It’s very, very difficult. And we do have a protocol at PBS. If there is something like a non- paternity event, as the geneticists and genealogists call it, we have to tell you that privately. This is not like a gotcha kind of show. And then you can opt out. We could tell you, that’s all we tell you.

ISAACSON: You went through an incident that was supposed to be a national learning experience, when you are trying to enter your own house in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It’s a Harvard professor trying to get the door unlocked. Somebody calls the police, thinking you’re breaking in. You get arrested by the police officer, and there’s a battle. What have you, thinking back on that, learned from that?

GATES: I think what happened to me was of a fundamentally different nature than the terrible things that have happened to people who have been killed by the police, people like Eric Garner. It’s a completely different level of experience. So I don’t often talk about my arrest, because I think it was a bizarre one-off. I think the officer just happened to be walking down the street, and he got a call from a woman who happened to see the man who had driven me from the airport after two weeks in China. And someone had — what’s left out of the story is, someone had tried to break into my house while I was in China. So ,my key wouldn’t work. So I asked the driver, who was a big man and happened to be from Morocco, now is a very close friend of mine, I asked him if he would just try to break the door down. He goes boom, and the door popped open. At the same second, a white — older white person is walking by, and she looks up, and she calls the police, two black guys. He’s a brown North African, right?


GATES: She calls the police and says, two black men are breaking into this house. So, this officer — officer Crowley is nearby. I had three suitcases, which I had taken with me to China. So, as soon as I got home, I opened the suitcases in the foyer of the house. The policeman later told me that one of the motifs that thieves use is to bring suitcases into a house empty and fill them up, and then steal the stuff, so they look like they’re just leaving.

So there was my black face, and there were these empty — there were these suitcases. So he couldn’t even see me anymore. Barbara Johnson, whom, as you know, was a brilliant professor of comparative literature at Harvard and one of my best friends, who passed much too soon, once defined a stereotype as an already read text. This is what racism is about. This is what anti-Semitism is about. They look at you, and you have already provided a narrative, a narrative that’s been superimposed by a history of stereotyping. I tell my students at Harvard that, under the floorboards of Western culture, there are two streams that are constantly running. One is anti- black racism and one is anti-Semitism. And we saw that at Charlottesville, and we see it every day in American society. But both are rooted in economic insecurity. So, if we can address the causes of economic insecurity, we can begin to address the causes of anti-Semitism and anti-black racism.

ISAACSON: You teach at Harvard. To what extent do you feel multiculturalism, a push for separatism, things like that are happening among the different groups at Harvard? And to what extent do you feel it’s your role to push back on that and to make things more complex for the students?

GATES: The students at Harvard are very integrated. Now, this was surprising. There are 16 — I believe that’s the latest count — 16 black organizations in the undergraduate college at Harvard, 16. I mean, I was the secretary of the Black Student Alliance at Yale. And I had a list of all the black kids. And my job was to call them the day before the meeting and say, please come out. We’re not going to beat you up ideologically. Please come out. We need a show of force. Sixteen groups. The Nigerian students have a group. The Black Men’s Forum, of which I’m the faculty adviser, has a marvelous group. Every Monday, they dress up in suits and ties. I kind of like that, I’m old-school.


GATES: Black women have different groups. But then they have a leadership council. So, they cross-pollinate. I don’t think that you could embrace a universal cultural identity without having a particular culture on which to stand. And that’s the same principle that’s at work in “Finding Your Roots.” We’re all admixed. We all have been sleeping with each other for a long, long time. We all are Africans. The only question is if you are a distant African or a recent African. Yet, despite how different we look, at the level of the genome, we are 99.9 percent the same. We all come from the proverbial common ancestors, the proverbial Adam and Eve. And that’s a marvelous thing to contemplate. And that’s what I hope “Finding Your Roots” teaches Americans week to week.

ISAACSON: Skip Gates, thank you so much for being with us again.

GATES: Thank you, my brother. Thank you.

About This Episode EXPAND

Christiane Amanpour speaks with Ukraine’s foreign minister, Vadym Prystaiko, about Lev Parnas and Australian mining magnate Andrew Forrest about fire relief in his country. Walter Isaacson speaks with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. about his show “Finding Your Roots.”