By Vanessa Williams
It wasn't a question of whether his ancestors had been slaves. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a son of the Old South and one of the country's leading civil rights pioneers, knew that to be true.
But what he learned about one of his enslaved ancestors, guided by Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., caused him to break down and cry.
Gates says that Lewis' story is one of the most powerful of his new PBS series, Finding Your Roots With Henry Louis Gates, Jr. The 10-part program premieres Sunday.
Finding Your Roots is the fourth installment of Gates' popular franchise, in which he digs into the genealogy of famous Americans. This go-round, Gates looks into the backgrounds of 25 individuals, including actors Michelle Rodriguez, Robert Downey Jr. and Samuel L. Jackson; media personalities Barbara Walters and Sanjay Gupta; religious leaders Angela Buchdahl, Yasir Qadhi and Rick Warren; and political figures Condoleezza Rice and Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, N.J. The series runs through May 20.
The previous three specials drew a combined 25 million viewers, a testament to the continued interest in genealogy more than 30 years after the television series Roots sparked interest in searching family histories, particularly among African Americans. The availability of information online, along with more widespread use of DNA testing, has made it easier for people to explore their family trees.
"What's your favorite subject? Your favorite subject is you," Gates said in explaining the popularity of genealogy. "You are, in part, the sum of your ancestors," he said, and researching one's background helps people figure out "how you became uniquely you."
Gates, 61, who is editor-in-chief of The Root, an online magazine owned by the Washington Post that features news and commentary about African-American culture, said his interest in family history started when he was 9 years old. He remembered attending his grandfather's funeral and being struck by the physical features of the man in the casket. "He looked white. I wanted to know why. The next day I bought a composition book and interviewed my parents about their ancestry. I've been a genealogy junkie since then." Gates eventually learned that his grandfather inherited his looks from an Irish ancestor.
Booker will actually get to meet his white relatives in one episode. Gates used a family history, old public records and DNA testing to track down Booker's great-grandfather, a white doctor in Louisiana, who fathered an out-of-wedlock child with Booker's great-grandmother.
"There is no African American we have ever tested who is 100 percent black. None," Gates said. "It deconstructs the notion of race … We are a mixed people."
This article has been reprinted with permission by the Washington Post.