Geoffrey Canada is a social activist, author and educator who is best-known for his position as president and CEO of the Harlem Children's Zone. You might recognize him from the education documentary Waiting for Superman, which profiled the organization's nationally recognized work to increase high school and college graduation rates in a 97-block area of Harlem, N.Y.
Canada, who grew up poor in New York City's South Bronx and has spent an entire career focused on improving the lives of urban children, recently turned his focus inward — to his own DNA and ancestry. A guest on Finding Your Roots (a PBS series hosted by The Root's editor-in-chief, Henry Louis Gates Jr.), he learned about his family history dating back to his third great-grandparents and the unique details of his ancestry. The most surprising finding: Gates told Canada that he's among the 1 percent of African Americans who can trace both their mother's and father's lines to Europe.
The Root talked to Canada about what he found out, why it's unlikely that he'll ever get answers to some of his questions and what the revelations about his identity mean for his professional mission.
The Root: How did you get involved with the Finding Your Roots series?
Geoffrey Canada: I was talking with Skip [Henry Louis Gates Jr.], and he asked me if I had any interest in DNA and if I knew about his program, which I did. I explained to him that I'd been on a 25- to 30-year search to answer some of those questions in my own life. I was interested simply because I'd run into blind alleys, was stonewalled and wasn't able to make any additional progress researching my father's side of my family. At that point I didn't know anyone who could help me get past my father's generation. I'd run into a dead end. So I said, "Great, we should do it."
TR: What did you learn?
GC: It was absolutely fascinating. One of the big questions in my life was about where my family name came from. I've met other Canadas, but I've never met anyone who could answer that question. I learned that we were once the Cannadays, and that name came from a white slave owner who owned my ancestors. That was very interesting to me. I had no idea where the name came from, but I did always think it was probably the original name.
Also fascinating was the fact that I could trace my ancestors back into slavery past the first census in the 1800s that began to list black folks. That was because my ancestors were both left in wills, both on my mother's side and on my father's side. That allowed me to track my family much further back than most African Americans are able to do.
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.