If you missed Tuesday night’s installment of PBS’ Finding Your Roots—hosted by The Root’s editor-in-chief, Henry Louis Gates Jr.—it’s worth checking your local listings for a replay. This latest episode focused on “three enslaved families with three unique histories,” including the family histories of Yale-educated actress Angela Bassett, of Malcolm X and What’s Love Got to Do With It fame, and musician Nas, whose 1994 Illmatic is universally regarded as a cornerstone of the hip-hop canon.
But the show’s other fascinating portrayal was of the family history of senior White House adviser Valerie Jarrett, a longtime friend of Barack Obama who worked to help him become the nation’s first black president, and whose story includes family members who made significant contributions to American history in their own right.
Although she’s mostly a player behind the scenes, anyone following national politics knows that she’s had a role in many of the most significant political debates in recent years. But this journey through her family’s story showed a different side of Jarrett than we normally get to see.
And today she spoke briefly with The Root about what her family’s legacy means to her.
Jarrett already knew the story of her great-grandfather Robert Robinson Taylor, who was born in North Carolina in 1868 and was the first black graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He was the first-known credentialed African-American architect and designed most of the original Tuskegee University campus—a project commissioned by Booker T. Washington.
Within her family, she said, “We always celebrated that amazing accomplishment, but I was always curious about how did that happen,” given that Taylor’s father—Jarrett’s great-great-grandfather—had been born into slavery. What she learned, though, from records revealed on the show, was that her great-great-grandfather was owned by a man named Angus Taylor, who was likely also his father. And while he was never freed, he was granted a measure of autonomy, allowing him to work and save $5,000—which may have been what enabled him to send his son to college.
Jarrett also knew about her great-great-grandfather Victor Rochon, a black member of the Louisiana Legislature in the Reconstruction era. What she didn’t know was that Rochon had made a widely publicized speech, at the time, arguing against the Separate Car Act of 1890, a state law that codified segregation in rail transportation and eventually led to the Supreme Court’s infamous Plessy v. Ferguson decision.
“It really gave me goosebumps,” she said, “to imagine his courage,” adding that she was “proud of him”—imagining his rage—but also because of his “willingness to serve our country in elective office,” despite injustices that African Americans faced.
“It made me feel that I stand on his shoulders,” Jarrett said. “We always talk about the challenges that we face today, but they pale in comparison to what so many of our ancestors faced, and overcame, in many instances. And I think that’s part of the history of our country that has to be told.”
She said she had “a lot of mixed emotions” knowing that, generations back, her ancestor Pierre Rochon owned slaves—including his children—but that she felt grateful, at least, that he freed them.
“It’s complicated,” she acknowledged of her family tree—and the history of many black families. “We can’t brush it under the carpet, as though it never happened. We have to learn from it, and I think that it’s an important lesson, which is why I was glad that my daughter and some of her cousins who are younger” were able to watch the show, “because we should never take anything for granted” in our history.
Jarrett also spoke about her late father—a successful pathologist—who started as a U.S. Army doctor in the 1950s but then took a position helping to found a hospital in Shiraz, Iran—before the Islamic revolution, when the country was a monarchy—because there were fewer opportunities for black physicians in America at the time. After they returned, her father completed his career as a professor of medicine at the University of Chicago.
Along with the influence of her mother, a prominent educator, Jarrett said that part of her motivation to choose public service as a career was her parents’ encouragement, throughout her life, to give back to her community and her country.
She watched the episode with her mother, daughter and several cousins, describing the experience as, at times, “poignant and painful”—since it recalled a time when family members were enslaved—but also a “celebration of the knowledge” that her family had made great strides.