Finding Your Roots

Professor Henry Louis Gates of Harvard
Only Skip Gates can get away with telling a guest, in this case former NAACP head Ben Jealous, that "you're the whitest black man we've had on this show." He makes the remark as he reveals DNA evidence showing that Jealous is 80 percent European in derivation. The show is Finding Your Roots, which Gates hosts with panache on PBS. Teasing isn't easy to get right, but Gates is skilled at it, so the moment is funny rather than awkward or cringe-worthy, which, given the vexing place of race in our history, it easily could have been. So many questions are contained in the remark. How could a man that's 80 percent white lead the NAACP and isn't it pretentious for him to call himself black anyway? It could be a sore point. And it could be an exceedingly uncomfortable point since so much European blood was introduced by white slave owners, a point made disturbingly clear by the research that Gates and his staff conduct. But as we know from history, it makes sense for Jealous to identify as black because of the racist "one drop" rule and the notion that "half black is all black." What Jim Crow racists hated above all was "race-mixing," an ironically ignorant notion.

Gates' ability to handle the tonal shifts in looking at the history of slavery and immigration in this country is impressive and makes the show at once good-natured, sad, angry, informative, moving, and even beautiful. A couple things stand out for me. One is that the histories of so many our families are tied up in the anguish of the Civil War and the crime of slavery and racism. The other is that Americans are a resilient and nervy bunch. Whether the story is one of African-Americans rising from the prison of slavery or of immigrants from Europe and Asia and Mexico and elsewhere, the people that have formed (and are forming) the American character are people who were unafraid to take great risks and overcome oppressive circumstances to build better lives for their descendents.


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