Henry Louis Gates Jr.: Why it’s essential to know more about our ancestors

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Henry Louis Gates Jr., 72, is a professor, historian and documentary filmmaker. His PBS series “Finding Your Roots” returns for its ninth season in January, and his latest documentary series, “Making Black America: Through the Grapevine,” debuted on PBS this month.

How did you come up with the idea for “Finding Your Roots”?

I was just standing in the bathroom, and the idea, it was like a gift from God, it just came from nowhere. I knew it was such a good idea, I stood there with tears running down my face. I would get eight prominent African Americans, and I would trace their ancestry, until we hit the brick wall of slavery, which it does for every African American. And then when the paper trail was exhausted, I would do their DNA search and see what ethnic group they were from in Africa. That was the whole idea, and it was born in the year 2003, in the middle of the night in my bathroom.

How did the DNA discoveries impact you?

Well, after I started filming, they started analyzing my DNA, and it turned out that I am one of the relatively few African Americans who on his mother’s side is not descended from a Black woman but from a White woman who was Irish or English, probably was an indentured servant, back a couple hundred years ago. She had a baby with a Black enslaved man, probably in Maryland, which is where my family has been for time immemorial. And guess what? The same thing is true for my Y DNA. My Y DNA also descends from a European. But I am not alone. About 35 percent of all African American men also descend from a White man who impregnated a Black woman on their father’s side during slavery. Isn’t that fascinating?

Carter G. Woodson said: A people cannot know its future until it knows its past. And if that’s true of ethnic groups, it’s certainly true of us as individuals. And it doesn’t mean that you are confined by what your ancestors did. But often traumas, although people never talked about them, have trickled down through the branches of your family tree, almost by osmosis. The way that you celebrate Christmas or the foods that you cook, the foods that you eat, the way that you worship. Even the way that you use language, these things have been inherited, invisibly, from our ancestors. So the more you learn about those ancestors, the more you learn about yourself. And collectively the more we as Americans learn about our ancestry, the more we get an accurate picture of what it means to be American. And to be an American means, by definition, that you are multicultural and at the level of the genome — multiethnic. That’s just the way it is.

I have to admit, your show sparked an interest in my family, and we’ve been trying to track down our ancestry for years. We had my uncle do 23andMe, since he is the only one who carries my grandfather’s Y DNA, and I’m fascinated by how the technology continues to evolve. You go back a year later, and the website can tell you more and more.

Yes, it’s because the more people who are in the database, the more the ratios, the percentages change. My hope is that every African American will be tested because now they can tell you so much more about where your ancestors are from. And it’s a common mistake that people make to think that these DNA tests are telling them what race their ancestors were — they’re not. They never use races. What they do is talk about geographical locations, and where your ancestors were living two or three or four hundred years ago, through your DNA. They map it onto the names of countries now, so they will say they were living in Ireland. Or they were living in Scotland. Or they were living in eastern Nigeria or whatever. And what’s interesting about this, too, is that the DNA science has developed at the same time that our knowledge of the origins of the African people in the slave trade has expanded exponentially because of a reference tool called the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database. So for instance we now know, what ports our enslaved ancestors were shipped out of in Africa and where they arrived in the United States and when.

And so I started only doing African Americans, and I did Oprah, and Chris Tucker and Bishop T.D. Jakes and my Yale classmate Ben Carson, and, you know, it was a big hit. And then I got a letter from a woman saying: Dr. Gates, I’ve always admired your work in multiculturalism and cultural diversity, but after watching two seasons I’ve decided you’re a big fat racist because you only do Black people. Why don’t you do Jewish people like me? Why don’t you do Asian people?

So we talked about it at PBS, and we decided we were going to expand the brand, as it were. And that was like a smash hit. Everywhere I go people stop me. People can have ”Make America Great Again” hats on, and they stop me and they say, Well, I don’t agree with your politics, but I love your TV show. What started just to give African Americans knowledge about our ancestry in Africa has really become a vehicle for everybody to learn about their roots because I naively thought that only African Americans were ignorant of their roots, but everybody is. When I sit down with our guests. They know the names of their grandparents, maybe their great grandparents, that’s it. So our team goes to work, we find their ancestors, and we turn them into stories.

I think the popularity of “Finding Your Roots” has to do with the two motifs. The first lesson is that America is a nation of immigrants. Even our ancestors, yours and mine, they were immigrants; they were not willing immigrants, they were unwilling immigrants, of course — our Black ancestors. Because you, like me, have White ancestors as well. The DNA companies will tell you, almost never, if ever, have they tested an African American who is 100 percent sub-Saharan African. And I never have. All of our Black guests have some White ancestry. So the first lesson is that we were all immigrants. Even Native Americans came here 15,000 years ago across the Bering Strait.

The second lesson is that we are all hybrids. If you go back far enough, we are all mixed up in each other’s genomes. And third is at the level of the genome we are 99.99 percent the same as human beings despite our apparent physical differences. And those are the lessons of finding your roots. I think it’s a way, precisely at a time when the country is riven by political discord and xenophobia and ethnic scapegoating, it’s a healing mechanism; it is a way to remind Americans that we are all in this together. We are all human beings together.

In your new documentary series “Making Black America,” you’re focusing on Black culture, organizations and social networks.

For so many people, scholars and members of the general public, the African American experience is one primarily characterized by trauma, pain, anxiety, pathology, depravation. And, of course, the ways that our ancestors heroically fought back against slavery and against Jim Crow, segregation and white supremacy. But as you know, and as I know, Black people didn’t just sit around and talk about white racism. Life behind the veil, to use W.E.B. Du Bois’s metaphor, was full of joy and love and entertainment. Our people, within a segregated world, created one of the world’s truly great cultures. Truly great art forms like the spirituals, the blues, jazz, dance and Black forms of worship. So I ask the question: What did Black people do when the color curtain came crashing down? What did our ancestors do behind the veil? As best they could replicate the larger White world from which they had been excluded.

Our community was cemented through an invisible network broadly termed the grapevine. And we all know about Marvin Gaye and Gladys Knight, “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” But guess what? John Adams discussed the grapevine in his diary in 1775. A few months after the battles of Lexington and Concord he said, Black people — and I’m quoting — have a beautiful “art of communicating intelligence among themselves. It will run several miles, in a week or fortnight.” And then in 1901 Booker T. Washington named it the “grapevine telegraph.” He said: “Though I was a mere child during the preparation for the Civil War and during the war itself, I now recall the many late-at-night whispered discussions that I heard my mother and the other slaves on the plantation indulge in. These discussions showed that they understood the situation and that they kept themselves informed of events by what was termed the ‘grapevine telegraph.’ ”

And so for ages I wanted to make a series about what Black people did when no White people were around. And the series opens with four people playing bid whist. Bid whist, for our generation, was the national Black pastime. Making Black America meant erecting churches, building schools and universities, and organizing a labor movement, even drag balls, beauty pageants, nightclubs and creating holidays. We touch on all Black organizations going back to 1775. We have Black golf associations, Black bridge associations, even a Black skiing association. And then we had our own vacations spots, including Highland Beach in Maryland, Sag Harbor on Long Island and most famously the Inkwell in Martha’s Vineyard.

So we start from the original grapevine in slavery formed by 1775 and go all the way to Black Twitter. Black Twitter is just the grapevine digitized, the grapevine on steroids. And I did it to show our culture, contrary to what many social scientists said, we are not a product of pathology. We created a vibrant, resonant culture as noble and as exemplary as any on the face of the earth. We created what Du Bois called, “a small nation of people.” Or what Martin Delany called “a nation within a nation.”

And is this an evolving story? You could make the argument that some of institutions and organizations are not as strong they once were. Many have said that integration weakened these institutions.

Yes. That is a key question. I was watching the “PBS NewsHour” the other day, and they did a feature focusing on the HBCUs. I think they said that applications to the HBCUs are up 30 percent. The HBCUs have never had a larger applicant pool. In fact, many leaders of the race thought that after Brown v. Board, the Black colleges and universities would fold because they had been created out of the necessity caused by segregation. But the HBCUs are still creating more Black doctors and lawyers and engineers than historically White schools. When I go to Martha’s Vineyard, never have there been more Black people who are owning homes on Martha’s Vineyard, though Martha’s Vineyard is integrated. Oak Bluffs and particularly the Inkwell, the traditional Black section on the beach, they have never been more populated by Black people. Many Black people, as soon they were they were able to, they moved out of the inner city to suburbs, but many continued to worship at Black churches. They would come to Harlem and go to Abyssinian Baptist Church. So now we have a choice. It’s the difference between enforced segregation and willing association, and our people are willingly associating because we love Black culture.

What’s the mission for why you make these documentaries?

Well, my mission is to show that African American history is American history. In my day job, I’m a teacher. I make these series to teach Americans about the complex history of race in America. I want to expose them to the culture and social institutions that people of color created behind the color line. And I want to show them how our people fought back against white supremacy in all of its hideous forms. I want to do all of that at one time. Because there is no American history without the story of the Black people, who helped to create it. So I am very much concerned with integrating the African American story into the American story, and the American story into the African American story.

Robin Rose Parker is a writer in Maryland. This interview has been edited and condensed. For a longer version, visit wapo.st/magazine.

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