Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. On the Importance of 'Finding Your Roots'

The groundbreaking genealogy series on PBS returns for its fourth season and its host shares why it's more important than ever. 

Posted in , Oct 2, 2017

Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Tonya Lewis-Lee

Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. is an author, an Emmy award-winning filmmaker,  the Director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University, and the host of PBS’ popular series Finding Your Roots. But the multi-hyphenate scholar would  like to be known as something else too.

“The Santa Claus for genealogy,” Gates jokes to Guideposts.org when talking about the new season of his hit show. “To be able to introduce someone to their ancestors that they had no idea they had, it's like being the Santa Claus of genealogy.”

Gates has hosted Finding Your Roots for three seasons now (the fourth premieres October 3rd on PBS). In that time, he’s sat with actors and actresses, comedians, humanitarians, and visionaries, sharing with them (and us) untold stories of ancestors who have struggled,  thrived and laid the foundation for their family tree.

“It's such a great gift that you can give to people,” Gates says of the show’s mission. “I love genealogy. I think that if people do their family tree and have their DNA analyzed, it'll help to break down barriers. It helps people realize that we're all the same at the level of genomes. Our experiences are very common, especially in terms of immigration,” he says. “We're all here; we all have a story, and doing someone's family tree is like opening a secret door you didn't know existed.”

For Gates and his team, plenty of research goes into the hour-long episodes presented to fans. The show’s producers pick which famous figures they’d like to work with each season, sending requests in the mail that ask people to share basic information about their family tree and any stories passed down through the years that might be helpful. Then, the show’s Chief of Genealogy, a woman named Johni Cerny, searches through digital databases to recover any research available.

Sometimes the job is easy, but most of the time, digging through records can be tedious and frustrating.

“You have to go into the archives and really do tough work. It takes a long time and we never know how long it's going to take, but we don't rush the research,” Gates explains.

While the show’s producers often ask guests if they have anything specific they’d like to learn, many come with a blank slate, excited to simply discover more about their background.

“We ask people, ‘Is there something specific you want to know? Some family mystery that you want us to solve?’” Gates says. “But by and large, nobody knows anything really.”

That was the case for Larry David, the creator of Seinfeld and star of HBO’s comedy series Curb Your Enthusiasm. David, along with Senator Bernie Sanders, is featured in the show’s season four premiere and the secrets he uncovers about his family’s history certainly shock the sarcastic comedian.

Gates and his team were able to trace David’s roots through World War II during the Nazi occupation of Poland to the American Civil War where his Jewish ancestors immigrated to Alabama and fought for the Confederacy.

“You can't make this stuff up,” Gates says when hinting about other surprises in the episode.

As exciting as it is to glean new information about one’s ancestors, Gates thinks the show’s human context is what draws people in week after week.

“What we have is story telling power,” Gates explains. “We turn raw data into narrative. If you trace your family tree and you find say the 1900 census, well it looks pretty boring if you're looking at it on the computer screen. But if you could contextualize it, figure out why were they there? What was happening in this society at the time? Why would they move from what is now Poland to New York City with five dollars in their pocket? It’s fascinating and riveting.”

That’s part of the reason why Gates sends every guest home with a special gift, a hardcopy of their family tree with all of the research, newspaper clippings, and photos his team was able to find. The contents of the book hold meaning for the show’s guests, but the name, “The Book of Life,” holds meaning for its host.

“That's the name that I got from an old Black spiritual, ‘Write my name in the Book of Life. Oh write my name,’” Gates says. “That's a song that slaves would sing, and I'm paying tribute to our enslaved ancestors in this country by calling that huge scrapbook your Book of Life.”

Gates has given himself the Finding Your Roots treatment too, eventually learning that his ancestor, a free Black man named John Redmond, fought in the American Revolution. That discovery only affirmed his belief that now, more than ever, people need to be in touch with their roots.

“I think that a lot of people turn to Finding Your Roots because there's so much anxiety about the present,” Gates says. “There’s anxiety about the present and the future and that means that you turn to the past for security, to ground yourself. People want to find stability by knowing where they came from, on what foundation they stand. I think that’s why genealogy is so popular today.” 

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