The past always informs the future, and never more so these days than in Finding Your Roots, the PBS program hosted by renowned scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr., a Harvard professor and the founding director of Harvard’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. He is also chairman of The Root.
“There is something essential in human nature that drives us to wonder where we came from,” says Gates. “We can’t truly know ourselves until we know something of our origins.”
Finding Your Roots takes well-known figures from all fields and delves deeply into their origins, often with surprising and insightful revelations that leave the high-profile and often outspoken subjects stunned and tearful. For instance, the pioneering and controversial artist Kara Walker, who frequently deals with slavery in her work, is forced to confront the peculiar institution’s impact on her own ancestry.
Walker is one of the subjects featured in the premier episode of season 3, which airs on PBS stations Tuesday, Jan. 5, at 8 p.m. EST/7 p.m. CST. This season consists of 10 episodes and will offer a deep dive into the backgrounds of television producer Shonda Rhimes, actress Maya Rudolph, comedian Keenen Ivory Wayans, talk show host Bill O’Reilly, news anchor Soledad O’Brien and more than 20 others.
The structure of the show is beguilingly simple. Each subject has a question about his or her past that he or she would like to resolve. For instance, in the season premiere, actor Ty Burrell, best known as Phil Dunphy from the sitcom Modern Family, is curious to see if he has African-American ancestry. Gates and his crew dig through census and tax records to discover that, indeed, Burrell’s suspicions have merit. One of his great-great-grandmothers rose from slavery and became one of the few homesteaders in Oregon, taking advantage of an opportunity enabled by President Abraham Lincoln to own land out West. To confirm the lineage, DNA testing is used to produce matches within the family tree.
Also in the first episode, Donna Brazile—author, noted political analyst and vice chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee—is curious about her unusual last name. Gates and his team investigate, using the same methodology that they applied to Burrell’s case, and discover that her family name is a tweaking of the name “Bracewell” and that it has roots in slavery.
Despite the similarities of narrative structure in the three investigations, the show doesn’t feel repetitive. Burrell, Brazile and Walker all hail from different parts of the country, and the portrayal of their pasts involves tracing their personalities and spirits within distinctive episodes of American history.
Rather than serving as passive observers, viewers are drawn into the stories, especially as each layer of ancestry is revealed. The drama is less in the final revelation than in the process. It will be hard to watch Finding Your Roots without beginning to ask the same questions about your own forefathers and foremothers and how they managed through the difficult circumstances of 19th- and 20th-century America.
Professor Gates says in the press materials accompanying the new season, “Piecing together the past can shape how people see themselves and their future.”