“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Does any American exist who does not recognize this line? It is from the sonnet written for the Statue of Liberty by poet Emma Lazarus. Our country has long been recognized as a haven for the poor and the oppressed. But we have also done our share of oppressing and importing poor people to oppress. In this giant stew pot of a nation, we have blended blood, genes, colors, religions, cultures, and names. Sometimes the blending was voluntary. Often it was not. We have become so blended that we often don’t know quite who we are. And for a host of reasons, many Americans have little access to birth records going back more than a few generations.
Harvard professor and director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is hell-bent to demystify the intermingled ancestry of our people. His weekly PBS series, Finding Your Roots, examines histories and family genealogies through steadfast research and with the help of new scientific DNA tools. The series uncovers hidden ingredients of family history, while also unflinchingly shining the spotlight on America’s life story. Most of the people profiled in the series are household names like Martha Stewart, Kevin Bacon, Condoleeza Rice, Harry Connick, Jr. Interestingly, Gates finds threads of commonality among his guests, often linking them to each other in some surprising way.
As I watched the story of Adrien Grenier unfold onscreen, I reflected upon my own genealogy, a topic which has never particularly interested me. Why is that? I wondered. Why is the family history of Grenier or any of the others featured in the program more interesting or more important than my own family history? And as I watched these black, white, brown, yellow, and red-blended people grapple with their mixed up heritage, I finally understood the resistance to form-fields denoting a person’s race. How does Barack Obama select which box to check? He is neither Caucasian, Asian, or Black, but he is all three. The “mixed race” option sounds too much like “grade brood mare” or “Heinz 57 hound.” At last I get that, I really do.
My own heritage is as incomplete as that of these onscreen personalities. I am reasonably familiar with some of the blends involved on my maternal side. But I know absolutely nothing about my paternal side. It never occurred to me that the sperm that created me actually came from a man with his own story, his own skeletons in the closet, his own ancestors whose graves I may have danced upon without even knowing it. I had no interest in the man, so I never considered his story worth my time.
I can only imagine the mixture of curiosity and trepidation that Grenier felt as Gates moved back in time, pushing past the history Grenier knew and revealing the secrets that lurked on the next page and then the next after that page in the photo album.
And I wonder how the new-found knowledge of his hidden ancestry will affect Grenier’s future. His absolutely stupefied demeanor hinted at a future filled with the hard work of processing a new identity. How have the other profiled personalities used their new grasp of the truth?
I hope to DVR this PBS series, if I can just remember to leave the cable connection on. KAID, my local PBS station airs it a 8PM on Sundays. The Finding Your Roots DVD is also available on the PBS website, along with a link to local listings around the country.
How about you? Are there family secrets in your closet? Have you ever uncovered some surprising fact about your ancestry? How would you react to learning that a pirate’s genes are dancing with your own? Or king’s genes?