I just had the opportunity to preview the final episode of the upcoming 4-part television series Faces of America. I was anxious to see what new perspectives on genealogy might be brought by this latest offering by PBS, which appears among a flurry of family history-themed TV shows (Who Do You Think You Are?, The Generations Project, to name a few).
The episode entitled Know Thyself wraps up the series that explores the genealogy of twelve celebrities and well-known figures:
Poet Elizabeth Alexander
Chef Mario Batali
Comedian Stephen Colbert
Author Louise Erdich
Author Malcolm Gladwell
Actress Eva Longoria
Musician Yo-Yo Ma
Director Mike Nichols
TV Dr. Mehmet Oz
Actress Meryl Streep
Olympic Gold Medalist Ice Skater Kristi Yamaguchi
The show sets out to explore two questions: What made America? And what makes us?
While episode 4 doesn’t focus directly on “what made America?”, the question “what makes us?” plays center stage. It follows episodes that explore the genealogy of the guests and settles in on the latest advances in DNA research. Specifically Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. has the enviable opportunity to have 100% of his genome (and that of his 96 year old father) analyzed by the newest technologies available.
Everyone has two copies – one from their mother and one from their father. According to the experts on the show, they can now trace back and see “which pieces come from which ancestor.”
However, the results presented to Gates in this episode did not offer “which pieces came from which ancestor” but rather, clarified which part came from his mother and which from his father (technically ancestors, but not quite what I imagine the average family historian was hoping for.) The rest of the analysis was regarding physical traits – balding, propensity for certain diseases, and the like. The small silver device (looking like a flash drive) that Gates and his father received with the complete results may very likely hold data from which future generations will glean much more specific information, but the current outcome was fairly anti-climactic.
For me the riveting moments were early on in the episode and mirrored my own deep feelings about what drives much of my research.
Actress Meryl Streep learned much about her successful male ancestors. “They were clearly people that had ambition,” she says as she pours over the lovely cabinet cards. But it’s obvious she was unimpressed by their social standing and accomplishments.
When pressed for what the findings mean to her, she sums it up slowly and eloquently. “I’m so intrigued with their households…with their wives…with the invisible history of the women who came along side their august journey.
And I feel connected to them because I’m a woman. To look down the names of all the women…” her voice trails off, “I long to know what their lives were like.”
One of Streep’s ancestors bears the name that sums up the perceived lives of so many of the women who lurk behind the names listed in the U.S. Federal Census with the occupation of “none,” or “keeping house.”
“Plain” Streep says wistfully, “her name was Plain.”
But what struck me most in this episode was the underlying deeply-held feelings and biases that peeked out throughout the one hour episode. Skin color was the last thing on my mind as I started the episode, but it was clear it was constantly on the minds of those involved in the project. Mournful looks of disappointment crossed more than one guest’s face as they discovered they were primarily European in ancestry, while high-fives with the host were quick when African roots were presented.
Poet Elizabeth Alexander (who was introduced and referred to as “African-American Poet Elizabeth Alexander” even though the majority of her ancestry is European) put it this way, “You fantasize about being the descendant of an Indian Princess, or an African Princess, but not an English Princess. And there she is.” You can hear almost hear the unspoken final word: bummer.
Gates echoes the sentiment. “That’s funny, I never thought of that. You had a princess on the tree, but the wrong country, the wrong color.” Ouch.
Yo-Yo Ma expressed it more humorously: “I’m so disappointed.” But then smiles at Gates and says, “We’re symbolic bros.”
Stephen Colbert was presented with the pie chart that simply said “100% White Man.” Gates explains bluntly, “You’re the whitest person we’ve ever tested.”
It leads one to wonder why so much emphasis on skin color in the show? And emphasized it was. “My guests hoped to see more ethnicity in their ethnic identities. More evidence of racial mixing in their personal pie chart,” said Gates.
But beyond the racial undertones, there are pearls of wisdom to be gained from Gate’s guests. Yo-Yo Ma, whose tree went centuries back and was full of prestigious ancestors, was clear about what it meant for him: “We still have to prove ourselves today.”
Mike Nichols shares a wonderful story that proves the point that genealogists have learned time and time again: family stories that have been handed down inevitably possess a grain of truth.
As a genealogist I’m encouraged to see genealogy become more and more a part of our national conversation. With so many smart, dedicated researchers out there I’m confident the positive outcome resulting from Faces of America will be that more people around the country will become interested in genealogy…and we’ll be there to help.
Watch Henry Louis Gates, Jr. on Good Morning America:
Faces of America on DVD at Amazon