On his compelling PBS genealogy show, renowned history scholar and Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., 72, has brought celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and Chris Rock to tears with his revelations about their ancestors. On the current season of Finding Your Roots, he unearths the family trees of actresses Viola Davis and Julia Roberts, pop star Cyndi Lauper, journalist Jim Acosta and comedian Carol Burnett, among others.
Finding Your Roots is in its ninth season, but originated as the 2006 genealogy show African American Lives. How did it evolve?
So we had a great first season [of African American Lives]. We had Oprah and Quincy Jones and [bishop] T.D. Jakes … Chris Tucker. Whoopi [Goldberg] heard about it from Oprah and called my office 19 times, and I let her in. PBS said, “Wow, this is great. The ratings are fabulous.” So I do a sequel. I got my good friend Maya Angelou, bless her soul; Morgan Freeman — [because] anybody who played God and the president, you gotta do his DNA, right? Chris Rock, who burst into tears when I introduced him to his great-great-grandfather who served in the South Carolina legislature during Reconstruction. Then I got a letter from a Jewish lady. It said: “Dear Dr. Gates, I’ve always admired your stances on cultural diversity and cultural pluralism, but after watching African American Lives, I’ve decided you’re a big fat racist because you don’t do white people; you don’t do Jewish people like me.” We completely reinvented the series because of that lady’s letter. So the third season was called Faces of America, which featured Stephen Colbert, Meryl Streep, Yo-Yo Ma, Kristi Yamaguchi, Mike Nichols. Then someone threatened to sue us over the name, so PBS said. “You’ve got five minutes. Pick a new name.” I went: Finding Your Roots. That’s the history of the series.
Why do you think the show has such high ratings?
I’ve been able to trace the growing popularity of the series over the last decade by the number of people and the kinds of people who stop me on the street or in an airport. In the beginning, it was mostly African Americans who stopped me about my work as a scholar or my Black history series, but then that audience started to diversify. … One of the reasons we are the number 1 nonfiction series on PBS is precisely because it brings people together. It shows people two things: one, that America is a nation of immigrants. And two, with our ever-more important DNA component, it shows that under the skin — no matter how different we apparently are superficially — we are 99.9 percent the same at the level of the genome. That is a message people want to be reminded of over and over again.
What else have you learned since starting this series?
I used to think African Americans had the most difficult ancestry to reestablish, but I’ve learned that for Ashkenazi Jews from Russia, the Armenians, the Irish and for many other groups, it’s just as difficult to populate their family trees as it is for African Americans. When I started, I thought that all white people had a coat of arms, but they don’t, and very few people whom I’ve interviewed — white, Black or brown or yellow or red — know more than … their grandparents, a few know their great-grandparents, almost nobody knows their great-great-grandparents, and then we tend to forget.
If you could go back and live in any time period, what would it be and why?
I would live right now. Given the history of anti-Black racism in America, there’s never been a freer time to be Black than post-Civil Rights. When I read the slave narratives, then the autobiographies of freed Black people, they’re all so frustrated. I bet they all died of heart-related conditions that stem from high blood pressure, because they are dealing with Jim Crow racism, and before that slavery.
If you could have dinner with any historical figure, who would it be?
Can I do a dinner party? Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, Thomas Jefferson and Harriet Tubman. Benjamin Franklin — come to think of it — I’d invite him to the dinner party, too. And [writer and anthropologist] Zora Neale Hurston, because she would be cracking everybody up with her wit and her barbs. But at that table, the smartest man would not be Jefferson, it would not be Franklin, it would be W.E.B. Du Bois. I read him every year. I teach The Souls of Black Folk every year, and he’s just astonishingly subtle. He was a poet with the English language and one of the fathers of American sociology and one of the pioneers of Black history. Another woman that I would invite would be Toni Morrison. You got to have the queen. That would be a hell of a dinner party.
What’s your go-to music?
I have SiriusXM 49, Soul Town, on all the time. My wife [professor Marial Iglesias Utset] is Cuban, and it drives her totally crazy. That’s my high school music. That’s my love music. That’s our dance music. That’s my dream music. I never get tired of it. It’s The Temptations and The Four Tops and Aretha [Franklin] and Smokey [Robinson] and all that music I love. That was the golden age of American democracy. It was the zenith of the Civil Rights era. America was on fire in a good sense. It was so energetic. I think that all members of AARP in my generation will remember those times fondly. You couldn’t wait for new records to come out, new styles, new fashions.
You were famously part of a “beer summit” at the White House. [In 2009, President Barack Obama invited Gates and officer James Crowley, who had arrested Gates on a disorderly conduct charge, to sit down and discuss the matter over a beer.] What’s your favorite beer?
That’s the last beer I had. I don’t drink beer. I have a very nice wine cellar in our home in Harvard Square [Massachusetts]. I'm sure there’s people who have better, but I have a very good collection of over 50 exquisite rums. I collect dark rum, sipping rums. ... I’m sipping the history of slavery, because slavery for us is about cotton. For the whole rest of the Caribbean and Latin America, it’s about sugar. It was a terrible fate to find yourself on a sugar plantation. In a way, as a scholar of slavery, every time I take a sip, I’m remembering where this product came from.
Did you make any New Year’s resolutions?
I haven’t made a New Year’s resolution in a long time, but I bet if my wife, … if she were here, she would say the resolution that I should make is talk less and listen to her more. I’m going to work on that.
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