Finding Your Roots With Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the PBS series that takes a very deep dive into the ancestry of famous people, never fails to surprise, but in the third episode this season, which airs Tuesday, it shocks. The show focuses on the family histories of actress Maya Rudolph, TV showrunner Shonda Rhimes and actor-director Keenen Ivory Wayans. The show traces their ancestry using census records and tax data deep into slavery and, in some cases, beyond.
Rudolph, the daughter of soul legend Minnie Riperton, breaks down when she sees her great-great-grandfather included on a census of slaves—when he was only 5 years old. She thinks of her own children, and can’t bear to consider the misery that must have filled his life. Rhimes is awestruck when she learns that her enslaved third great-grandmother was named Matilda; growing up, she always thought she would name her daughter Matilda.
But the real stunner is in the Wayans segment. He learns that his great-great-grandfather, Ben Pleasant, was the personal servant of John Manning, the governor of South Carolina, a man who owned nearly 600 slaves. But the story gets deeper. During a trip to Canada, a group of abolitionists kidnapped Pleasant to free him, yet he chose to return to slavery.
It’s a literal OMG moment that Wayans handles with grace and charm. He parses the reality of the situation: His great-great-grandfather was a free man, but his family was still trapped in slavery, so he returned to be with them. Wayans realizes that both situations were agonizing and that his great-great-grandfather chose family over freedom.
Wayans’ realization makes for compelling television, but so do the stories of Rhimes’ and Rudolph’s ancestors. Henry Louis Gates Jr. (chairman of The Root) and his team trace Rudolph’s paternal lineage back to what is now the Lithuanian capital city of Vilnius and through Ellis Island. Her mom’s people include former slaves who sued in Reconstruction Kentucky for their property rights and won. Rhimes’ family history includes black landowners who escaped sharecropping to own property in Arkansas. The barrier-breaking present of these stars is rooted deep in their past.
The show’s use of census and tax records is an inspiring bit of investigative journalism, but the use of genetics is groundbreaking, and its revelations are stunning. Rudolph’s African heritage extends not to West Africa but to Southeast Asia, likely to a group of people who traveled the Indian Ocean from what is now Indonesia to Madagascar, where pirates engaged in the slave trade, even though the route to America was circuitous. Rudolph had always thought that she had Native American blood, but the tests proved negative. Wayans’ ancestry was also traced to Madagascar, but not Asia.
When people ask me about my family background, I put on my best scholarly voice and proudly tell stories of achievement and resilience from the Mississippi Delta and East Texas. Shows like Finding Your Roots illustrate that that knowledge is superficial at best. We can all trace our backgrounds to much deeper, international and, perhaps, astonishing beginnings.