Submitted by Betty Anne
The field of genealogy is not one most people would expect to generate exciting, inspiring television programming, but in the last few years at least a few offerings have stepped up to the challenge. One of the most prominent is PBS’s Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Gates, the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University, has an extensive background working in genealogy, and was a participant in several genealogy programs prior to Finding Your Roots. In this series, he presents the genealogical information about each celebrity or public personality participant being investigated in a manner that demonstrates most of the current methods used in genealogy.
Each episode starts with a brief introduction to the genealogical research methods being used by the team’s researchers to trace the family trees, which includes contemporary DNA analysis. There are typically three participants in each episode, and the program segues from methodology to a brief introduction of each participant via their already-established backgrounds; for some, this is primarily information about them personally, and for others, it might include some basic information about their parents and/or grandparents. Each participant is presented with their “Book of Life,” an album the Finding Your Roots research team compiles of the highlights of their family story. As the participants go through the book with Gates’s guidance, the program tells the story of the participant’s primary area of interest – usually one ancestor or branch of the family tree. Archival footage and photographs, historical documents, and other family trees are presented to the audience and the participant to help flesh out the story in a comprehensive, visual manner. Once that avenue of research has been exhausted, the team then moves on to a secondary area of interest or other interesting ancestors who were discovered in the family tree and presents them in a similar manner. Each episode typically ends with a reflection period and presentation of a completed family tree for each participant.
Like many Americans, the reaction of the participants is typically good. Senator John McCain, for example, discovered that he not only comes from a long line of military ancestors, a Civil War ancestor was held in a POW camp, much the same way he was during his own service. A Revolutionary War era ancestor served as his state’s representative in Congress. He found a lot of meaningful connections to his ancestors as he reflected on his ancestry. Others, such as comedian Wanda Sykes, also found humor in serious stories they connected with, as she related during an interview with Conan O’Brien:
However, the program has not been 100% without controversy and internal conflict on the part of participants. Many of the individuals being investigated discovered they were descended from slave owners or other disreputable individuals, and the series’s third season saw a delay in production and its ethics questioned after actor Ben Affleck requested the crew omit information about his slave-owning ancestors. When the series returned to television, it was after an internal review that led to much more stringent standards in research, production, and transparency.
The result is a very strong, engaging program that leaves viewers entertained, inspired, and sometimes envious of the celebrity participants. A common theme among the comments on the Finding Your Roots Facebook page is requests for the program to pursue the history of individuals who are not celebrities or public figures, which demonstrates the powerful draw knowing our family history has. (PBS does carry a genealogy program focused on everyday Americans titled Genealogy Roadshow, which will be reviewed on this blog at a future date.) For viewers who want to learn more about specific research methods used on the program and specific ancestor stories, Gates also writes a companion series of books for the series.
For anyone interested in genealogy, this is an important series to see. The details of each episode all follow the basics of genealogical research, but the nuances often offer important reminders about methodology or suggest other avenues to pursue when a line seems to come to a dead-end. Information about American history, the immigrant experience, and world connections presented in each episode can also help flesh out the stories of many other families whose ancestors followed similar paths. For those who aren’t able to catch the series as original broadcasts or reruns on PBS, it is also available on DVD and online digital video services.