When I got the idea to do a PBS series about the roots of the African-American people, I was inspired by two sources: first, of course, by Alex Haley’s Roots; and second by the new science of ancestry-tracing through the use of DNA, to which I had been introduced by my friend Dr. Rick Kittles, then a geneticist at Howard University.
Now, a decade later, what started as African American Lives has morphed into the very popular weekly PBS series Finding Your Roots, still sponsored by Johnson & Johnson, with Ancestry.com now proudly serving as our lead sponsor, but with our focus expanded to trace the family trees of guests representing any nationality or ethnic group.
When I conceived of the series, I thought that the emotional payoff—the high point in the reveal to our African-American guests—would be the revelation of the part of Africa that their first African maternal or paternal ancestor to land in America had come from—their tribe or ethnic group. In fact, I sold the series on that basis. But I was wrong.
Actually, most African-American guests are moved by two other parts of our reveal: first, by learning the names of their enslaved ancestors and any other aspects of their lives that we can uncover, especially how much they cost on the slave market; and second, by something called their genetic admixture (pdf), which means the percentages of African, European and Native American ancestry encoded in their genome. As incredible as it seems, geneticists can actually tell you what percentage of your ancestors over the last 500 years—that is, since the time of Columbus—were Native American, black or white. It’s amazing, even to me, after all these years of sharing this information with dozens of guests.
Why does learning about your admixture move people so much? I think because the results are so surprising. And my goal in producing Finding Your Roots and writing about race, ethnicity, history and genetics for The Root has been to bring these surprising scientific conclusions to the broadest possible audience: young and old, black and white, Latino and Asian.
With that goal in mind, we’ve created a slideshow quiz that reveals the latest discoveries made by a brilliant team of geneticists at the personal-genetics company 23andMe. Its report, published in the American Journal of Human Genetics on Jan. 8, 2015, was written by Katarzyna Bryc, Eric Y. Durand, J. Michael Macpherson, David Reich and Joanna L. Mountain. I wanted to share their exciting research with the readers of The Root. Enjoy these amazing statistics!
Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.