Top of Mind: Henry Louis Gates Jr.

Harvard professor, public television star, genealogy expert, presidential drinking buddy, 59, Cambridge.

Top of Mind Henry Louis Gates

Photograph by Sadie Dayton

You remember the headlines: A celebrated scholar has trouble getting into his house, and winds up sparking a national uproar over race that culminates in a White House beer summit. Indeed, last summer was a hectic one for Skip Gates—no less so because of the globetrotting project he’d just begun, a PBS series called Faces of America, debuting 2/10. In it, Gates plumbs the mysteries of his genetic roots while helping celebrity guests (Eva Longoria Parker, Stephen Colbert, et al.) do the same, proving we’re all a lot more alike than it sometimes seems.

[sidebar]I had just gotten back from China, from finding Yo-Yo Ma’s ancestors. I had brought back an antique chess set to give to [Harvard professor] Larry Bobo. That’s the only reason I stopped here instead of flying straight to the Vineyard. I was so excited about this chess set.

I know you have to ask, but I have nothing more to add to what I’ve already said.

I have a complex life. I don’t dwell on any one event. You gotta keep moving. Satchel Paige said, “Don’t look back, something might be gaining on you.” You could say that’s my motto.

My fourth great-grandfather, a black man named John Redmond, fought for the Continental Army. Which is why I had Sam Adams at the White House, in his honor.

I once asked Larry Summers how he got over his divorce and he said, “I strapped myself to that speeding bullet called Harvard.” Well, I strapped myself to this documentary. I threw myself into it.

Since the day we buried my grandfather when I was nine, I’ve been obsessed with my family tree. Now my family tree hangs in my kitchen. For a black family, it’s quite extraordinary.

Jane Gates, my great-great-grandmother, was freed by the Civil War. The father of all her children was a white man. We know that he was Irish. It’s a story Jane Gates took to her grave. We’re tracking him down through his DNA, though, and I’m gonna find that sucker. I hope he’s rich!

How’d I choose people for the series? I just wrote to them and everybody said yes. It was fantastic. Meryl Streep, I thought she might be Jewish—I had read that—it turns out she’s not.

We had scientists at [Harvard-MIT research collaborative] the Broad Institute do a complete analysis of my guests’ genomes. Having identical stretches of DNA means they share a common ancestor. Malcolm Gladwell and I have a common ancestor.

Well, the further back you go in time, the fewer people there were. Plus, Charlemagne, he was the king, man. He slept with everyone in France.

My father is 96 and a half. He’s the oldest human being ever to have his genome sequenced. We decided to do mine so we’d be able to see exactly what I inherited from my father.

By subtraction, they re-created my mother’s genome. And that was the most moving experience that I’ve ever had doing documentary film.

According to the most sophisticated genetics test, I’m 56 percent white, 37 percent African, and 7 percent Native American.

Genetically, if you look at me, I’m a white man.

I start teaching this month. I didn’t teach first semester because I was afraid of the press and I had death threats and bomb threats to [my] house. The university thought I should move. But I decided I was not going to be driven out of town by some racists.

Most of the mail I get is enormously positive.

I’ve had the good fortune of having dreams and then living to see them fulfilled. I mean, bars are full of guys who don’t get one dream fulfilled—and I’ve had many. That’s a gift. I thank God every day.