Henry Louis Gates Jr. has inspired hundreds of celebrities and public figures throughout the years to explore their ancestry and make insightful revelations about their past.
However, Gates’ interest in ancestry didn’t start after he became a renowned scholar, professor, filmmaker, journalist and cultural critic. Instead, it began when he was a young child in West Virginia interviewing his parents about their family tree.
That interest grew throughout the years, eventually serving as the foundation for his hugely successful PBS show “Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates Jr.,” where he explores the ancestry of influential people from diverse backgrounds.
Gates discussed the origins of his show, his own interest in genealogy and family history research, and other topics during “Past Connections That Bind Us All: A Conversation with Henry Louis Gates Jr.,” a Q&A event hosted by Arizona PBS and ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication on Saturday, April 30 at ASU Gammage. The event was graciously sponsored by Arizona Gammage, SRP and ASU Library.
Gates also told behind-the-scenes stories describing some of the more notable discoveries with the celebrities and public figures who’ve appeared on his show, and answered questions submitted by community members during the event, which was moderated by Battinto L. Batts Jr., dean of the Cronkite School and Arizona PBS General Manager Adrienne Fairwell.
Although Gates first developed an interest in ancestry as a child, he was further inspired by the 1977 television miniseries “Roots,” which was based on the family history of author Alex Haley.
“I wanted to be like Alex Haley … what village, what ethnic group I descended from,” Gates said.
In 2000, he was contacted by a Black geneticist at Howard University who was looking for volunteers for DNA research. Gates volunteered, eventually learning that he was a descendant of the Nubian tribe.
He was the only person out of 2,000 who were tested to descend from that tribe.
After Gates discovered his own genealogy, he decided that he wanted to help others do the same. So he developed an idea for a documentary where he would test the DNA of eight prominent Black figures and trace their ancestry back to slavery.
After a few years of planning and pitching, he launched “African American Lives,” with Oprah Winfrey as one of his first guests.
Gates initially focused on Black celebrities and public figures, including Winfrey, Quincy Jones, Chris Tucker and Ben Carson, until he received a letter from a Russian Jewish woman imploring him to include other races and ethnicities.
“I’m a professor of African and African American studies. It had never occurred to me to even think about doing white peoples’ DNA,” he said.
From there, Gates included celebrities such as Meryl Streep and Stephen Colbert, allowing the series to evolve to its current status as one of PBS’ most-watched programs.
As the show progressed, Gates said the series had to develop an ethics policy and protocols whenever they discovered that either the celebrity or one of their relatives was adopted. He described the stress and trauma involved when someone finds out their relative isn’t related to them by blood.
“I have had to tell people that their father wasn’t their father,” he said. “You can’t tell people that live (on television).”
Towards the end of the discussion, Gates debunked some misinformation regarding the slave trade, including the true number of Africans who arrived in America, and shared advice and resources for those who wanted to learn more their genealogy.
“It’s like a whole word has opened up because of this data,” he said. “There are a whole lot of ancestors on your family tree coming from different parts of Africa, different parts of Europe. Your genome is a mosaic of the diversity of the people of the world.”
You can view photos of the event here.