On-Air Highlights

"Finding Your Roots' explores race, culture and identity through genealogy and genetics

Written by witf.org | Mar 19, 2012 12:49 PM

The basic drive to discover who we are and where we come from is at the core of the new 10-part PBS series Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the 12th series from Professor Gates, the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor at Harvard University and director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research. Filmed on location across the United States, the series premieres nationally Sundays, March 25 – May 20 at 8 p.m. EST on witf.

Continuing on the quest begun in his previous projects, African American Lives (2006), African American Lives 2 (2008) and Faces of America (2010), Gates finds new ways to, as he says, “get into the DNA of American culture.” In each hour-long episode, he takes viewers along for the journey with one celebrity pair bound together by an intimate, sometimes hidden link, treks through layers of ancestral history, uncovers secrets and surprises of their family trees and shares life-altering discoveries.

Finding Your Roots will be a moving, uplifting, entertaining and enlightening experience for viewers,” says Gates. “Genealogy is more popular than ever, but it’s far more than a solitary pastime. It’s a fascinating endeavor that can drastically alter both history and the way we think of ourselves.”

Guest pairings include: New Orleans jazz masters and close friends Harry Connick, Jr. and Branford Marsalis, whose European immigrant ancestors made very different choices in the slave-era South; spiritual leaders Angela Buchdahl, Yasir Qadhi and Rick Warren, whose ancestors’ paths to America were shaped by religious convictions; and education superstar Geoffrey Canada and media legend Barbara Walters, who both rediscover family histories long obscured by forgotten name changes. In other episodes, public servants Condoleezza Rice and Congressman John Lewis, featured in different hours, trace their contemporary-day strength to enslaved ancestors, and actor Robert Downey, Jr. marvels at the vastness of his family tree dating back to the 13th century. Gates travels with his guests throughout the series, sharing the details of ancestral stories and helping process what they’ve learned. He accompanies musician John Legend to a rock concert, goes backstage on Broadway with Samuel L. Jackson, joins Newark, N.J. Mayor Cory Booker as he reveals the root-seeking results to his parents, and trails CNN chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta and Geoffrey Canada to memorable family reunions.

Working closely with leading U.S. genealogists (including staff of the New England Genealogical Historical Society and Johni Cerny, co-author of the acclaimed The Source: Guidebook for American Genealogy) and ancestry experts from around the world, Gates and his production team comb through family stories to discover unknown histories and relatives the guests never knew existed. When paper trails end for each story, the team turns to top geneticists and DNA diagnosticians (such as the genetic testing service 23 & Me) to analyze each participant’s genetic code, tracing their bloodlines and occasionally debunking their long-held notions and beliefs. Reaching beyond celebrity stories, Gates also seeks out everyday individuals (on-air and online) who are wrestling with questions of identity. He visits with employees at his favorite barber shop, and engages Harlem students who are curious about their genetics.

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