FINDING YOUR ROOTS by Henry Louis Gates Jr.


The Official Companion to the PBS Series
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The latest from redoubtable historian Gates (African-American Research/Harvard Univ.; Life Upon These Shores: Looking at African American History, 1513-2008, 2011, etc.) is not, despite the title, about finding your roots. A companion text to the popular PBS series, and following his similar Faces of America (2010), it’s about finding the roots of 25 American notables of diverse ethnicity.

From Branford Marsalis to Wanda Sykes, Sanjay Gupta to Harry Connick Jr., Cory Booker to Barbara Walters, the histories are uniformly told. The author introduces the subject of each inquiry with a concise biography and some apt words from the honoree. There follows the parade of progenitors discovered through oral history and documents like immigration records, realty transactions and census rolls. Experts were often enlisted. Finally, DNA was used to trace genealogy, sometimes back to the Ice Age. It appears that Martha Stewart is descended from craftspeople, and through the veins of Robert Downey Jr. flows a bit of Jewish blood. As many readers will suspect, climbing the family trees of these famous figures proves that many of us are related—perhaps not even six degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon (his ancestry goes back to Edward I, and Brad Pitt is Bacon’s 13th cousin twice removed). Throughout these family tapestries are a variety of common threads—e.g., poverty, name changes and mistreatment. Integral to the nation’s history are the sorry annals of slavery as narrated by Gates in the African-Americans’ case studies. Their stories are particularly moving. Unfortunately, the TV format proves static on the printed page. Despite the persecuted emigrants, the tycoons, the slave masters and all the other colorful ancestral characters populating Gates’ passionate research, the individual tales rarely spring to life. Other subjects in the collection include Rick Warren, Condoleezza Rice, John Legend and Adrian Grenier.

Primarily of interest to avid genealogy buffs.

Pub Date: Sept. 15th, 2014
ISBN: 978-1-4696-1800-5
Page count: 344pp
Publisher: Univ. of North Carolina
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1st, 2014


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