Top of Mind: Extended Q & A with Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Your new PBS series—how long did it take to put together?
We started doing research on it in the spring. The hardest part of doing a series on genealogy is doing the genealogy. I mean, it takes months to track down someone’s family tree. This is our biggest series—we have 12 guests plus me. My genealogy has been done, so we’re doing genetic sequencing on me and my father.
I wanted to do this series after the response to [my previous PBS projects] African American Lives 1 and 2. I’ve received letters from people from all over the world—and from lots of different types of Native Americans—saying, "Why are you just doing [the genealogy of] black people?" And I got letters from West Indian Americans saying, "Why are you only doing African Americans?" So I thought about that.
When I was in the fifth grade, I took a class called "Ancient History." It was a world history course. It was great, I loved it, and I’ve never forgotten it. And I thought with African American Lives I was able to tell the story of the African people in America in a new way, through genealogy and genetics. So why not do that for all different types of hyphenated Americans? Also, I’m fascinated by the Middle East and the connections between the Jewish people and the Arabic cultures there. What would their DNA tell us? Is the story of the children of Abraham, is that true genetically?
In the show, you help a dozen really well-known people discover their roots, from Dr. Oz to Queen Noor to Malcolm Gladwell. How did you choose these people? Did you know all of them previously?
Some of them I knew, some of them I didn’t. I’d never met Mario Batali, I’d never met Eva Longoria. So I just wrote to them, and everybody said yes. It was fantastic, just really, really wonderful. Meryl Streep, I thought she might be Jewish—I read that on the Internet—it turns out she’s not.
I decided to use what I call the Noah approach: two of this, two of that. Two Asians, two Jewish-Americans, two Latinos. Didn’t quite work out like that in the end, but we do have two Catholics on the series, Stephen Colbert and Mario Batali. Eva Longoria turned out to be the one Latino person. Mike Nichols is Jewish: Russian Jew on his mother’s side and German Jew on his father’s side. And Malcolm Gladwell and [poet] Elizabeth Alexander are of Jamaican descent. Queen Noor, her grandfather was born in Damascus. Dr. Oz is a Muslim from Turkey.
Is there an instance where one of these individuals was really blown away by what you were able to find?
I would say that by their reaction all of them were blown away. Very few of us know anything beyond our grandparents or great-grandparents.
Why is that?
I don’t know. Since I was nine, since June 1960, the day we buried my grandfather, I’ve been obsessed with my family tree. And I’m 59 now. I know have my family tree as a result of the work of Johni Cerny—she’s our chief genealogist; she did all the genealogy for everyone in the African American Lives series and Faces of America. She’s an independent genealogist. And also Jane Ailes, who works out of Winchester, Virginia. The two of them did my family tree, which now hangs in my kitchen. For a black family it’s quite extraordinary, because they’ve given me the gift of [knowing] three sets of my fourth great-grandparents, which is very hard to do if you’re an African American because of slavery.
All African Americans are descended from slaves. The only question is, when did your ancestors become free? And I come from seven sets of free Negros—some were freed in the 18th century, some in the 19th century. Jane Gates, my great-great-grandmother, was freed only by the Civil War. The father of all of her children was a white man, and through having my DNA done we know he was Irish. It’s a story Jane Gates took to her grave. She only told her children that they all had the same father. Throughout the series, we’re testing male Irish guys, and it’s like paternity tests—one day one of them will have the same white DNA signature of me and we’ll know [it came from] my great-great-grandfather. We’re tracking him down through his DNA and I’m gonna find that sucker. Hope he’s rich!
But back to your question. Many of the Americans who migrated here were motivated by pain or suffering; many wanted willingly to obliterate their past. For many, there’s no paper trail. If you were tenant farmer in Ireland—you’re hard to trace. If you were Jewish from Russia, well, Jews didn’t even have surnames until relatively recently. The same in Turkey. People got surnames there in 1934.
Then you have other accidents of history. The Ottoman Empire records were destroyed in 1908. So for Queen Noor and for Mehmet Oz, it made tracing their family tree very difficult, but we were quite lucky and we got back to early 19th century for both of them on their Arabic side. For Queen Noor we were able to go back to her 48th great-grandparent. We traced Queen Noor back to Childeric I, the king of France, born in 436 A.D., Her Majesty’s 48th great-grandfather. So when everyone thought she was this fairy princess marrying the king of Jordan…well, she was a princess. She just about had a heart attack [when we told her]. And Elizabeth Alexander, the black woman who read the poem at Barack’s Obama’s inauguration, well, she’s a descendent of Charlemagne himself.