Black Social Activist; European Roots?

Geoffrey Canada of Harlem Children's Zone made a unique discovery on PBS' Finding Your Roots.

Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images
Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

GC: I think it’s still very unsettling to many people to confront the truth about slavery and rape. While most folks have thought about the barbarism of slavery, the fact that your ancestors potentially were rapists, I think, is something that everybody isn’t ready to deal with. I was actually surprised that Skip said a lot of white folks do take the test.

TR: As it turns out, you had 80 percent African DNA, although you have ancestors on both sides who could be traced to Europe. As someone who’s been a social activist and educator working for the benefit of kids who are largely black, would it have upset your identity or changed your priorities if you had found out that you had more white than black DNA?

GC: If it had turned out 60 percent European and 40 percent African or something like that, I would have had to reflect on that. I don’t think it would have changed my view of who I am. It certainly brings to view the fact that we are a country that is a lot more diverse than a lot of times we’d like to claim.

I’d never thought of myself as having European blood, even though there was a good chance that I did. So this made me think about that. And I talked to my kids about it. There was no sense of, “Oh, we’re not African American anymore.”

I’m lucky enough to have kids and grandkids and nephews who are half white and half African American, and this issue of identity and how you self-identify has been something that we’ve had to deal with in our family. So it wouldn’t have been a huge issue. And in the end, my mission around children would not have been impacted by this knowledge.

TR: People often talk about how it’s really harmful to African Americans that we don’t know our history. As someone who’s committed to supporting the potential of black kids, do you think it would be beneficial for them to participate in something like Finding Your Roots to learn about their own ancestry?

GC: I think that there is a part of a lot of us that wants to know more about who we are and who our ancestors were. It’s an area I’m taking a guess on. It’s not something I’ve talked to [the kids in my program] about, but I would guess that lots of our young people would really benefit from knowing more about ancestors and personal history. It helps you fix yourself in a place and time.

I have found it very interesting for me and my family to talk about this. And I think this is a great conversation for families to have, to kind of talk about the folks they didn’t know anything about. So I think the answer to that would be yes.  

Geoffrey Canada’s episode of Finding Your Roots airs Sunday, April 1, on PBS at 8 p.m. EDT.

Jenée Desmond-Harris is the staff writer for The Root. 

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