Chatty companion volume to the landmark PBS documentary African American Lives.
The folksy persona displayed onscreen by the two-part program’s writer/producer was a decided change of pace for gadfly public intellectual Gates (director, W.E.B. Du Bois Institute/Harvard Univ.; America Behind the Color Line, 2004, etc.), whose scholarly work can be starchy. Often going by his nickname “Skip,” Gates led celebrity guests like Maya Angelou, Quincy Jones and Morgan Freeman through their family history, with an impressive team of genealogists and DNA scientists helping to clear up many mysteries. That same engaging tone emanates from this book, which covers all 19 people profiled on the show and adds a chapter on “How to Trace Your Own Roots.” It’s the rare African-American family that can track any relative back past the 19th century, and none of Gates’s guests knew nearly as much about their family as they would have liked. (“I just want to know exactly what happened, whatever it is,” was a common statement.) There’s not a dull story in these pages. Tina Turner found out she was actually one-third white: “So that’s why I love Europe,” she quipped. Reverend Peter J. Gomes learned that his Cape Verdean background included several Jewish ancestors. Don Cheadle’s ancestors were owned, not by whites, but by Native Americans. Long-held family myths were dispelled by hard genealogical or genetic data, often prompting very emotional responses, but the historical truths that replaced them were sometimes even more fascinating. Like the documentary, the book aims to be as approachable as possible—Gates’s frequent use of “we” is a nicely familial touch—but there are times when this stance becomes repetitive and bland, despite the intrinsically intriguing material. In the end, though, Gates achieves his goal: to produce a Roots for the 21st century.
Bright, inquisitive take on the multifarious murky stories and relationships that make up the history of a dispossessed people.