Roots with Henry Louis Gates'

Dec. 13, 2010
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Dapper and affable, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. has become the foremost public spokesman for African American history. With his PBS series “Exploring Our Roots” (out on DVD), Gates begins his genealogical journey with his own people before broadening the scope to include Americans of many backgrounds. Yet in speaking of his people, he confronts a paradox. According to his family tree, Gates is more Irish than African, but that matters little in a society where, as he says, “race trumps national origins.” In America, the appearance of being black makes people black, regardless of their genes.

The format of “Exploring Our Roots” is entertaining. Gates is shown visiting Oprah Winfrey, Chris Rock, Meryl Streep, Mike Nichols and other celebrity subjects of his research and presenting them with the evidence of their genealogy—the lost family photos and public documents that chronicle American life. For most of them, Gates has unearthed unsuspected roots and branches. Some African and European American families have shut the door to their past to suppress unpleasant memories. Others, however, are proud and aware. Eva Longoria traces her family to Spain; the Longorias arrived in North America before the Pilgrims. Mario Batali’s culinary kingdom derives from immersion in his Italian heritage, specifically his grandmother’s recipes.

Turkish-American physician Mehmet Oz points out that, medically speaking, we are the sum of our ancestry to a large degree. Many of the people interviewed by Gates add that psychologically and culturally, their heritage has helped shape their lives.

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