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Roots research unearths mixed emotions for African-Americans

by Erinn Morrison and Leslie Trew Magraw
Feb 18, 2011


By Erinn Morrison/MEDILL

Henry Louis Gates walks the audience through his family tree. 

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Faces of America on PBS

Gates announces renewal of popular 'Faces of America' series

Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. announced the continuation of his renowned Public Broadcasting Service documentary series "Faces of America" at Northwestern's annual Leon Forrest lecture. 
The series, which first premiered last year and featured the likes of Yo-Yo Ma, Meryl Streep and Stephen Colbert, will continue this year in a ten-week run. Madeleine Albright and Condoleezza Rice will be the first guests, according to Gates.

Professor Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, Jr.’s lifelong fascination with genealogy began at the age of nine, when his father revealed information about one of his ancestors following his grandfather’s funeral.

Gates’ father, Henry Louis Gates, Sr., took him and his older brother, Rocky, upstairs and showed them a scrapbook full of newspaper clippings that his grandfather had stowed away. Included in one of the ledgers was a picture of a black woman wearing midwifery clothes, and an obituary dated January 6, 1888 that read: “died this day in Cumberland, Maryland, Jane Gates, an estimable colored woman.”

His father then revealed that Jane Gates was a slave, who had eventually bought her freedom, and that an unknown white man had fathered her children. Then, as Gates tells it, he turned to his sons and said, “‘I never want you to forget it.’”

Gates said: "That night, I sat in front of our family TV and I interviewed my mother and father about their family tree. I had no inclination the day before—I had never even thought about a family tree. But somehow, seeing her picture and reading that obituary changed my life."

Addressing a packed auditorium at Northwestern University for the annual Leon Forrest Lecture, Gates shared his own genealogical journey while also discussing how new genetic technology can help African-Americans learn more about their ancestry by tracing their DNA to their African roots.

“I wanted to know my roots. I wanted to know where I came from,” Gates said. “I wanted to know why my mother’s family looked the way they did and why my father’s family looked white.”

For “African American Lives,” the popular Public Broadcasting Service documentary that traced the lineage of prominent black Americans like Oprah Winfrey and Quincy Jones. Gates partnered with Rick Kittles, a geneticist who went on to found African Ancestry Inc. in 2003.

Last year, Gates expanded the concept for the “Faces of America” series featuring notable Americans from all races. At the lecture, Gates announced that he has just signed a contract to continue the popular series in what will be a ten-week run. Madeleine Albright and Condoleezza Rice will be his first guests.

When Kittles launched his company, he said there were only two other companies doing genetic work for genealogical purposes, but that they focused mostly on whites. Kittles thought, “I could do the same things for African-Americans.”

The company collects mitochondrial and Y-chromosome DNA samples from clients and charges about $300 to match them to the more than 500 African tribes in its database. Kittles said they’ve been collecting data from African populations since 1995.

“One of the biggest hobbies that Americans have is tracing their ancestry. For the most part, until the technology was developed, they did it using paper records, birth records, census data--stuff like that,” Kittles said. “Now, with this technology, they get more and more interested in the test.”

While DNA testing can reveal a lot of information, some say African-Americans hoping to connect with their roots by having their genes examined should take the results with a grain of salt. Biologist Bert Ely and his colleagues at the University of South Carolina found that fewer than 10 percent of African-American mitochondrial DNA sequences could be matched to a single ethnic group or tribe in Africa.

Tony Burroughs, a professional genealogist and author of “Black Roots: A Beginner’s Guide to Tracing the African American Family Tree,” said he has his doubts.

“They’re taking DNA from African-Americans that live today. They’re comparing that DNA with Africans that live in Africa today. That has absolutely nothing to do with where your ancestors lived 400-500 years ago. It does not account for the historical migrations within the African continent,” Burroughs said.

Studies like the University of South Carolina’s have basically determined that African DNA is currently too complex to fully understand, or to trace, according to Burroughs.

“They’re selling a product, they’re making money, but is it science? That’s the question,” Burroughs said.

“If they haven’t published that [their test] works and other scientists have published that it doesn’t work, are we going to believe the scientist or are we going to believe the entrepreneur?” Burroughs asked.

Regardless of how you get there, many people consider looking into their past a worthwhile endeavor and think DNA testing is just a starting point for tracing their ancestral histories.

"With every DNA test, there comes a story," said Makta Fessahaye, 20, a student at Northwestern University. "There are some moments of pride, and there are some moments of shame, and I think that just comes with trying to figure out where you come from." she said. "And that happens to everyone, regardless of if you've descended from slaves or not.”