Family history has always been passed down through stories; letters, vintage photographs, and oral history fill in our memories of grandparents and their predecessors. But with DNA technology and the launch of popular Internet sites like Ancestry.com, people are using new tools to learn more about their lineage than ever before.
Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. is helping to lead the boom with his new PBS series Finding Your Roots. While Gates’s previous genealogy-inspired series African American Lives traced the lineages of eight subjects, his new show looks at 25 VIPs including Kevin Bacon and wife Kyra Sedgwick, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Downey Jr., and Barbara Walters. In addition to the stars, Gates spotlights politicos like Condoleezza Rice, Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker, and Rep. John Lewis, who discovers that his enslaved great-great-grandparents married at age 45 after they were freed in 1865.
Not surprisingly, Gates’s revelations evoke emotional responses from his subjects. “John Lewis cried three times,” Gates tells NPR’s Michel Martin. In another episode, he finds that Entourage star Adrian Grenier and political commentator Linda Chavez share a common ancestor from 1596. Sunday’s premiere features musician Harry Connick Jr., who is disappointed to learn that he doesn’t have any black ancestors.
Gates’s research “deconstructs our traditional notion of race,” he tells the Daily News, and is particularly tickled by the undeniable revelation that “our ancestors have been sleeping with each other all along.”