The roots of black America

Times Staff Writer

Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr., director of Harvard’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research (among much else), has made a sequel to his 2006 PBS series “African American Lives” -- “African American Lives 2,” this one is called -- in which he traces the ancestry of famous black people as far back as the written record allows, and then a little farther, thanks to the scientific magic of DNA analysis. Apart from adding one ordinary person to the mix -- ordinary, that is, in the sense of “not famous” -- the new edition is very like the first, entertaining and educational in the same even proportion.

It inevitably covers much of the same territory, but as each life is different, so are the rivers that feed it. Although the stories here support Gates’ thematic purposes, they also go where they will -- or where they went, this being a trip back into time, from parents, to grandparents and so on into the foggy mists.

The eminent figures whose family trees are climbed include Morgan Freeman, Chris Rock, Don Cheadle, Tina Turner, Maya Angelou, radio host Tom Joyner, theologian Peter J. Gomes, Olympic runner Jackie Joyner-Kersee and writer Bliss Broyard (the daughter of literary critic Anatole Broyard, a black man whose children thought he was white).

Gates visits each with a scrapbook of photographs and primary documents relating to their forebears, and from these bits and pieces stories are spun, almost in the way that a dinosaur is imagined from a jawbone, a couple of vertebrae and a claw. But there is something powerfully concrete about such clues, and the host takes evident relish in presenting them; he wants to widen his subject’s eyes and does.


As before, Gates is also a subject. He told Mother Jones magazine that one of his reasons for doing the series, which he calls a “ ‘Roots’ for the 21st century, ‘Roots’ in a white coat,” was, “I really wanted the very best people ferreting out my ancestors.”

And he got them. An international array of scientists, historians and unseen researchers apply new technologies and old-fashioned library skills to pull names and faces from a faceless, nameless past and finally “to reverse the middle passage,” to make an educated conjectural leap back toward Africa, attempting to identify by DNA cross-referencing regional and even tribal roots.

To focus on famous people makes a certain practical sense, not just because it draws viewers (and perhaps funding) to the show, but because the underlying narrative is one of accomplishment and how a people whose identity had been purposely stripped from them managed to create new identities for themselves, looking both to the future and a mythic past. (“Nobody wants their history to begin here,” says Gomes of the search for African roots.) And Gates is less interested in the lingering negative socio- economic effects of slavery than in the way that even successful slave-descended African Americans carry that fact inside them.

“Our country deals with slavery as a fad -- like bell- bottoms or disco,” says Rock, who discovers that his great-great-grandfather fought in the Civil War and was later elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives. “It’s not that far away,” says Cheadle, whose ancestors were slaves, not of white Southerners but the Chickasaw Nation. “It’s three generations away.” (His great-great-grandfather also fought in the Civil War.)


The show is a bit of a ramble, a peripatetic thing of bits of pieces that includes the pleasures of conversation and gathered families remembering what they can. The mosaic of their ancestors’ experiences in and out of slavery creates a “complicated picture of an institution that changed over time and was distinct from region to region.” Gates seems as happy to find evidence that contradicts something he thought he knew as evidence that confirms it.

That there are surprises shouldn’t be surprising. Each of us, Gates points out, has 64 great-great-great-great-grandparents. Joyner is shown a picture of his white great-great-great-grandfather and says, “I’ve looked around my family and I’ve never seen anyone with these eyes, until just now.” And Gates -- who can trace his African ancestors back to colonial times, and recently became a Son of the American Revolution -- finds that his DNA also matches that of Niall of the Nine Hostages, a fourth-century high king of Ireland.


‘African American Lives 2'

Where: KCET

When: 9 tonight

Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)