Q&A: Henry Louis Gates, Jr. on "Faces of America"

Monday, February 8th, 2010
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skipblog_1What made America? What makes us? These two questions are at the heart of the new series Faces of America with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Building on the success of his series African American Lives and African American Lives 2, Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr. again turns to the latest tools of genealogy and genetics to explore the family histories of 12 renowned Americans. The series premieres on THIRTEEN Wednesdays, February 10 – March 3 at 8 p.m. Ask your own questions of Professor Gates on the PBS website.

Q. What makes FACES OF AMERICA so special?

Gates: After my work on the African American Lives series, I got thousands of letters from people all over America saying, “Why not do my history?” So, I decided to do the same kind of analysis and research on people of Irish, Italian, Japanese, Chinese and other ethnicities, and the results are just as dramatic as in African American Lives. All of the guests on FACES OF AMERICA were deeply moved by what we revealed about their ancestry. We were able to trace the ancestry of Native American writer Louise Erdrich back to 438 A.D. We found that Queen Noor is descended from royalty, and that’s before she married King Hussein of Jordan. We found that the African American poet Elizabeth Alexander is related to the emperor Charlemagne!

We went even further and used DNA analysis to look for “deep cousins” — common ancestors among our guests — and we found genetic connections between eleven of our twelve guests. I found that despite all our apparent differences in terms of culture and history, we are all the same.

Q. Were you surprised about anything you found as you explored the ancestry of your guests?

Gates: I was surprised by the amount of genealogy data that exists for people who are not African American. Because of slavery, the “paper trail” for African Americans only goes back 200 years. Similarly, the records of Dr. Oz and Queen Noor’s families were destroyed during the fall of the Ottoman Empire. So it was a surprise to go back in history as far as we were able. We also uncovered surprising genetic connections between our guests, and their ethnic admixture. We presented each guest with a pie chart showing their racial admixture, and the people who were 100% Asian or European expressed regret at not being more mixed!

Q. You and your father, Henry Louis Gates, Sr., had your genomes sequenced for FACES OF AMERICA … what was that like?

skipanddadGates: We always knew we were going to do genome sequencing for two people, because that’s what we had the budget for — the science is incredibly expensive. So I jumped at the chance to participate, and I was very interested in finding out the genetic differences between my father and I. We made history in the process. My father and I are not only the first African Americans, but also the first father and son to have their genomes sequenced. In addition, at age 96, my father is the oldest person to have the procedure done. He also made the results public, so scientists will be studying his genetic makeup for generations to come.

Right now, the science of genome sequencing is in its infancy. Imagine being in the Library of Congress, but only having the reading level of “See Dick, See Jane.” When it comes to genome sequencing, we’re at that level of analysis right now, but we’re learning more every day. For me, it was very emotional to see the presence of my mother’s genome in my own map; she died in 1987, so it was like having a piece of her with me again.

Q: So what’s next for you? Were you left with any questions after completing FACES OF AMERICA

Gates: I found it astonishing that some of our guests, despite their ethnic differences, were related. I would like to do a series about sequencing the human genome, and also analyze more human diversity among other ethnic groups – a FACES OF AMERICA 2.

  • will schroeder

    While I enjoy Faces of America, there is one fact that, by its omission, really bothers me. Looking back in time, each generation doubles the amount of one’s progenitors. One has 2 parents, 4 grandparents, 8 great grandparents, etc. Finding an illustrious ancestor 10 generations back is not hard to do because one has 1024 to choose from. It is cherry picking to choose celebrities and unveil only their illustrious bloodline when certainly they have a wide variety of heroes AND villains in their past, just as all of us do. We Americans are poor at math and excellent at pretty fairy tales, and this sort of dry statistical omission poorly serves the viewing public by perpetuating myths of pseudo-royalty. You may say I’m being persnickety, but this sort of disingenuous celebrity worship has a pernicious effect on our supposedly equality-minded society.

  • Robert Leung

    It’s somewhat feckless to propagate this idea that celebrities today had royal ancestors 1000 years back. Because the number of ancestors increases exponentially (as the comment above states) you quickly get to a point where the number of direct ancestors outpaces the number of people that have ever existed. We all must have common ancestors. Nevertheless, the reward of genealogy is identifying that exact line.

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