New York Times Profiles Henry Louis Gates Jr.

He talks black history and heritage, Obama and more.

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Henry Louis Gates Jr. (Getty Images)

The New York Times Style Magazine caught up with The Root's editor-in-chief, Henry Louis Gates Jr., recently after he interviewed Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker for his new PBS series, Finding Your Roots. Calling Gates "a one-man multimedia industry," the article featured his views on black history and heritage as well as President Barack Obama.

Gates's slant on African-American history has been influenced by the research he did for his most recent book and television series, "Black in Latin America." In a move sure to raise eyebrows, he opens this latest volume with Juan Garrido, a free black conquistador who accompanied Ponce de León on his 1513 expedition to Florida. The year 1619 is when most historians date the presence of African slaves in the colonies, so why does Gates start 106 years earlier, and with an "oppressor" rather than with the oppressed.

"The thing about black history is that the truth is so much more complex than anything you could make up," he says. "One principle I've been fighting for that doesn't endear me to a lot of people is that black people can be just as complicated and screwed up as white people. Our motives can be just as base and violent. Suffering does not necessarily ennoble you."

Gates's belief in the complexity of American culture has only been reinforced by the genetic research that has informed his recent books and television programs. In them, Gates explores the lineage of Americans like Chris Rock, Meryl Streep, Yo-Yo Ma and Tina Turner. Using genealogical and historical resources, he traces their family stories as far back as he can. When the paper trail runs out, he resorts to DNA tests.

Gates is a member of the Personal Genome Project at Harvard Medical School, and he and his late father (who died at age 97 on Christmas Eve, 2010) were the first African-Americans to have their entire genomes sequenced. The tests showed that Gates Jr. has 50 percent European ancestry and descends from John Redman, a free African-American who fought in the Revolutionary War. In 2006, Gates was inducted into the Sons of the American Revolution. “When I do a black person's DNA, there are never any people who are 100 percent black, no matter how dark they are," he says. 

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