Henry Louis Gates Jr.: A Life Spent Tracing Roots
For more than 30 years, Henry Louis Gates Jr. has been an influential public intellectual with a distinct style, who makes complex academic concepts accessible to a wider audience.
Gates — known widely as "Skip" — may be best known for his research tracing the family and genetic history of famous African-Americans. "There are just so many stories that are buried on family trees," Gates tells host Neal Conan. "My goal is to get everybody in America to do their family tree."
With a number of PBS programs and books, he has traced the roots of prominent Americans — including Oprah Winfrey, Yo-Yo Ma and Stephen Colbert — and uncovered surprises about many families, including his own.
He says his goal in this work is twofold: "First, to show that we're all immigrants, and secondly, that we're all mixed — that we all have been intermarrying, or interrelated sexually from the dawn of human history."
His most influential writings on race, politics and culture appear in a new volume, The Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Reader. Gates, the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor at Harvard University, discusses the new compilation and how his fascination with genealogy began.
On the roots of his fascination with genetics
"I remember exactly the day, because it was the day that we buried my father's father, Edward St. Lawrence Gates. It was July 3, 1960. ... I was standing there holding my daddy's hand and looking at his father. And now, my grandfather was so white ... that we called him Casper behind his back ...
"My grandfather looked like he had been coated with alabaster and sprinkled with baby powder. And I was trying to figure out how someone who looks like me could be connected to someone who looked so Caucasian ...
"And the next day, it was the Fourth of July, and we went to the colored picnic, as we would have called it back then, in Piedmont, W.Va. ... And that night, I interviewed my mother and father about ... what I would later discover was called their genealogy, or their family tree. And I connected myself to them and to their parents, their grandparents and great-grandparents, and I never lost this fascination — indeed, obsession — with genealogy."
On his inspiration to help others find their roots
"You can say I had a severe case of Roots envy. I wanted to be like Alex Haley, and I wanted to be able to ... do my family tree back to the slave ship and then reverse the Middle Passage, as I like to put it, and find the tribe or ethnic group that I was from in Africa.
"And it was a young black geneticist here in Washington, named Dr. Rick Kittles, who is the owner and CEO of a company now called africanancestry.com, who made this whole fantasy of mine come true. ... He contacted me in the year 2000, said that ... he could do Alex Haley one better. He could do Alex Haley in a test tube ...
"He flew up to Harvard Square and came and took a huge vial of blood ... and told me where I was from in Africa. It turned out not to be where I was from, but it was ... a beginning. And Rick Kittles really launched me on this quest to help other people find their roots."
On the significance of family trees
"All historians generalize from particulars. And often, if you look at a historian's footnotes, the number of examples of specific cases is very, very small. As we do our family trees, we add specificity to the raw data from which historians can generalize.
"So when you do your family tree and Margaret Cho does hers, and ... Wanda Sykes and John Legend ... we're adding to the database that scholars can then draw from to generalize about the complexity of the American experience. And that's the contribution that family trees make to broader scholarship."
NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., confesses to "Roots" envy. The book and the TV miniseries inspired millions to trace their family history, Skip Gates' passion since he was a little boy.
But Alex Haley seemed to succeed where Gates and so many other African-Americans failed, by penetrating the documentary black hole of slavery and tracing his family across the Atlantic and back to Africa.
Now DNA technology has enabled Gates to succeed on a scale that Alex Haley could not have imagined. In a series of Public Television programs and books, he's traced the root of prominent Americans from Oprah Winfrey to Stephen Colbert and uncovered surprises about many families, including his own.
Essays on the origins of this passion can be found along with 30 years' worth of writing on literature, race, politics and culture in the new "The Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Reader." He joins us in just a moment. But we want to hear from you, too. What have you learned about your family's past that surprised you? 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, what's in a namesake? A fantasy world and a secret life. But first, roots. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., directs Harvard's Institute for African and African-American Studies, and he joins us here in Studio 3A. It's nice to have you here with us here in person for once.
HENRY LOUIS GATES, JR.: It's nice to be here, Neal, for the first time in person. It's great to meet you.
CONAN: You say that your fascination with genetics stems from your grandfather. You recall one time standing over his coffin and described him as white as a ghost.
JR.: I remember exactly the day, because it was the day that we buried my father's father, Edward St. Lawrence Gates. It was July 3, 1960, and all the Gatess are from Cumberland, Maryland. We're in Washington. Cumberland is on the Potomac, halfway between here and Pittsburgh, in the Allegheny Mountains.
And all my family, as we've now learned, has lived there on all branches for over 200 years. And I was standing there holding my daddy's hand and looking at his father. And now my grandfather was so white, Neal, that we called him Casper behind his back.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
JR.: Now, you can imagine...
CONAN: If he'd heard that, he wouldn't have been so friendly, I bet.
JR.: Yeah, behind his back is a key word in that sentence. But you can imagine that if he was that white-looking with blood coursing through his veins how incredibly white he was, dead. So it's the first time I had been that close to a corpse, and I was holding my dad's hand, as I said, and I was astonished. He looked - my grandfather looked like he had been coated with alabaster and sprinkled with baby powder.
And I was trying to figure out how someone who looks like me could be connected to someone who looked so Caucasian. And we went, we buried him at the Rose Hill Cemetery, the Episcopal cemetery, still there, all the Gates are buried there back to the oldest Gates, Jane Gates, who died in 1888. And we came back to the Gates family home, which Jane Gates had purchased in 1870.
And daddy took my brother, Dr. Paul Gates now, the chief of dentistry, Bronx-Lebanon Hospital, got to get a plug in for my brother.
CONAN: There you go.
JR.: Took us upstairs to my grandparents' bedroom. And I don't know about you, Neal, but back in the day, I was born in 1950, we didn't go upstairs in our grandparents' home. We didn't go into their bedroom. So for my brother and me, it was like going to Mars.
And daddy takes us into their bedroom and onto the sun porch off their bedroom, and there was a big armoire, and it was full of bank ledgers because my grandfather was a janitor at the First National Bank of Cumberland, Maryland. He was stealing these bank ledgers.
And daddy was taking them off the shelves, looking for something. And it turns out they were scrapbooks that Pop Gates, as we called him, was using these empty bank ledgers for scrapbooks, and dad was looking for something.
And finally, volume after volume after volume, my brother and I, not knowing what he's looking for, he finds what he's looking for, and he says you boys look at this. And we looked, Neal, it was the obituary dated January 6th, 1888, and the headline was: Jane Gates, an estimable colored woman.
And then he pulled a photograph out between the leaves of this ledger, and he said that's Jane Gates. She was a slave. She is the oldest Gates ancestor, and I never want you to forget her name or her birth date or what she did. And the next day, it was the Fourth of July, and we went to the colored picnic, as we would have called it back then, in Piedmont, West Virginia. And on the way back, I asked my dad to stop at Red Bull's Newsstand(ph), which we would call a convenience store today.
And he said what do you want? And I said a composition book. And that night, I interviewed my mother and father about what I would later call - what I would later discover was called their genealogy or their family tree. And I connected myself to them and to their parents, their grandparents and great-grandparents, and I never lost this fascination, indeed, obsession, with genealogy.
And after 1977, what's the greatest thing in the history of television up to that point? "Roots." You can say I had a severe case of "Roots" envy. I wanted to be like Alex Haley, and I wanted to be able to trace my - do my family tree back to the slave ship and then reverse the Middle Passage, as I like to put it, and find the tribe or ethnic group that I was from in Africa.
And it was a young black geneticist here in Washington, named Dr. Rick Kittles, who is the owner and CEO of a company now called africanancestry.com, who made this whole fantasy of mine come true, because he contacted me in the year 2000, said that he could trace - he could do Alex Haley one better. He could do Alex Haley in a test tube.
And he asked if I would volunteer to be one of his guinea pigs. And I said yes, and he flew up to Harvard Square and came and took a huge vial of blood, which was very painful and took a long time, and told me where I was from in Africa. It turned out not to be where I was from, but it was...
CONAN: Well, everybody makes mistakes.
JR.: It was a beginning. And Rick Kittles really launched me on this quest to help other people find their roots. And what we do, as you know, is a combination of genealogy and genetics. And right after Rick gave me my results, I got up in the middle of the night, and it was almost as if I had a gift from God, an idea, which is that I could take eight prominent African-Americans, initially, I would do their family tree back to slavery, and then when the paper trail ended, I would do their DNA to see where they were from in Africa.
And that led to "African-American Lives One" one with Quincy Jones and Oprah Winfrey and "African-American Lives Two." And then a Russian-Jewish lady wrote to me. And she said: You're supposed to be a theorist and multiculturalist. What are you, a racist, you only do black people? She said: Why don't you do Russian-Jewish people? And I went: Oh my God, can I do that?
And so that led to the program that became "Faces of America," and I did - I had to choose. How do you choose among the world's ethnicities? Well, I decided to do what Noah would do: two Jews, two Muslims, two Catholics...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
JR.: ...two Asians. And we did Kristi Yamaguchi and Yo-Yo Ma and Meryl Streep and Mike Nichols, and it was phenomenally successful. And then PBS asked if I would do a weekly primetime show. And that has been just an incredible experience, which is unfolding, now, even as we speak, and it's called "Finding Your Roots," and it's on every Sunday night at 8 o'clock.
CONAN: But I wanted to ask you about the surprise you found in your family once you penetrated that veil, that documentary - where the documentary record starts, slavery. And it starts I guess with the census of 1870, when records start to be kept. But in your family, you had always heard that your - your Pop Gates' white blood came from a man named Brady(ph).
JR.: That's right, Samuel Brady(ph). And so we tracked down the descendants of Samuel Brady. I didn't know if they were - would volunteer to take a DNA test or not. All my - I mean, my father went to his grave, and his sister Helen(ph) went to her grave even after getting the DNA results, saying that they were Bradys. So that's what we were raised on.
But we did a - just a paternity test, a Y-DNA test. You get your Y-DNA, that's what makes us, Neal, men, we have Y-DNA. And your Y-DNA is identical to your father's, his is identical to his father's back, you know, thousands of years. And they tested the descendents of the Bradys and revealed on national TV, in front of millions of people, that we are not...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
JR.: ...descended, but we are - from Samuel Brady - but we are directly descended, not only from a white man, which explains why my grandfather looked so white, but also from an Irishman. I have something called the O'Neil haplotype, and eight percent of all men in Ireland and I have identical Y-DNA. So, you know, when you talk about the black Irish, you're looking at him, brother.
CONAN: We're talking with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. His new book is "The Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Reader." 800-989-8255. What surprises have you found out about your family? You can email us, too, that's firstname.lastname@example.org. And we'll start with Jerry(ph), Jerry's on the line with us from Ashland in Kentucky.
JERRY: Hi, Neal, Happy to be on. I listen to the show every day.
JERRY: My mother, her last name was Bryan, B-R-Y-A-N, and we came to find out it was the Bryan family out of Boone, North Carolina. And I had some family who did some research and some genealogy, and it seems that this family has a lot of ties back to history. For one, the - I found out that my 11th great-grandfather was Sir Francis Bryan who was basically a hand, kind of a counselor, to King Henry VIII, kind of this - he was a shady guy.
He actually helped to conspire in the whole death of Anne Boleyn and, you know, some of the shadier pieces of that history, as well as - and then later he became a lord justice of Ireland, and so that was kind of interesting.
And then in addition, Rebecca Bryan Boone, who married Daniel Boone, was also a descendent of that family, a lineage of the Bryan family, and I also found out that on another branch, one of my 11th great-grandparents had been Pocahontas and John Rolfe.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
JERRY: All from the Bryan family. So it was really very interesting to find all of that out.
CONAN: But the high judge of Ireland, so he probably did terrible things to Skip Gates' ancestors and mine.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
JERRY: I apologize for that.
JR.: Congratulations. It's great when you can - when the paper trail can yield such rich and splendid results. And I've been very lucky, but I've had the best genealogists in the world working, obviously for the series, under the leadership of Johnny Cernie(ph), who's our principal genealogist and then the person who specialized in my family, a woman named Jane Ayles(ph).
And they were able, Neal, to trace my family back to three sets of my fourth great-grandparents, all of whom were free negroes, as we would have said. That would have been the legal term, people born - two sets were born in the middle of the 18th century, and one, my fourth great-grandfather on my mom's side, John Redmond(ph), actually fought in the American Revolution.
He mustered in Christmas Day 1778 and mustered out 1784. And because of that, my brother and I were inducted into the Sons of the American Revolution. I had no idea until we did this series. And now we're doing a project, under the direction of Jane Ayles, looking - counting patriots of color using the genealogical record.
There are just so many stories that are buried on family trees, and we have to get - my goal is to get everybody in America to do their family tree.
CONAN: Jerry, thanks very much for the phone call, appreciate it.
JERRY: Thank you.
CONAN: We're talking with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., about his new book "The Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Reader." We'd like to hear about what surprises you found out about your family, 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. In the book, Skip Gates writes that the family story had also been maybe they were related somehow to the Revolutionary War General Horatio Gates. He's lucky: Gates was a terrible general. It turns out it wasn't true.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CONAN: Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., joins us from time to time on the show. Over the years, we've talked about issues of race, politics, literature and culture and of course his passion: genealogy, DNA, family roots. Essays on that topic, along with three decades' worth of his writing can be found in the new "Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Reader."
Skip Gates is our guest today. We'd like to hear what you've learned about your family's past that surprised you. Our number, 800-989-8255. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
And I've asked Skip Gates to read us an excerpt from a piece he wrote about his mother's funeral. I hope I'm not putting too much strain on you.
JR.: Oh no, it's OK. My mother was a great lady. She died in 1987, and I wrote this because my daughters were very young when she died, and I wanted them to remember what a regal person she was and how close we were.
Instead of the modern Episcopal milquetoast service we had for mama, I wish that her funeral had been like the one for Miss Minnie(ph) or the one for Papa Charlie(ph) or the one for Uncle Boke(ph) that happened back when I was five. Now that was a nice funeral.
The sermon was loud and long, demanding that you break down. He's with the lord today, walking in grandeur, past brooks and fountains, hand-in-hand with his mother, Miss Lucy Clifford(ph) and his kind old father Mr. Samuel(ph). I know you want him back, but the lord had need of him up there.
Maybe it was to sing the tenor parts of the spirituals or maybe to tend the fires, maybe to polish the silver up nice or to keep the gold real shiny. I know you'll miss him. We'll miss him, too, but we'll meet again soon, at the pearly gates on that great Day of Judgment. When we cross over, he'll be waiting there for us, welcoming us into the fold.
Oh man, did those sermons feel good, sad good and hurting. And then they'd sing that killer song, people falling out all along the aisles. When I've gone the last mile of the way, I will rest at the close of the day, and I know there are joys that await me when I've gone the last mile of the way.
Then Mama had risen to read her obituary looking all good and sounding all fine. At Mama's funeral, I wanted to fall out like that, too. I wanted that blue-black preacher, who had substituted that time for Reverend Monroe(ph) and had blown his tired ass clean away. I wanted him to get up on that pulpit and preach the sermon of the dry bones like he'd done for Uncle Boke.
People still dated things by that sermon. Hey, man, that was three years, four months, 15 days, seven hours and five minutes after Brother Bluegums preached the sermon of the dry bones. I wanted the heavenly gospel choir to sing a lot of long, sad songs, and I wanted all the people in that church to fall out.
I wanted that church to be hot, with the windows closed, those paper-colored funeral-home fans spreading the steam rather than cooling anything down. I wanted starch collars to wilt up and straightened hair to kink up and go back. I wanted the kitchens crinkling up in that heat, crackling long and loud before our very eyes.
I wanted the whole world to know my mama's death and her glory while alive. I wanted to cry and cry and cry so I could tell her how sorry I was for not being a good enough son. I wanted her to know that I could have tried to do more. I could have tried to understand her better. I could have come home more.
I wanted her to know that I had tried and that I loved her like life itself and that I would miss her now that she was gone. I wanted to be sad in that dark, holy place, and I wanted that sadness to last.
CONAN: Thank you, an excerpt from "The Last Mile" and "The Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Reader." Let's get another caller on the line, go to Cangus(ph), Cangus with us from San Francisco.
CANGUS: Hello, I have a question for Mr. Gates, you may like this question. I've traced my family back to North Africa.
JR.: Oh great.
CANGUS: And I did it using a book you've probably never heard of. It's called "Eat Right for Your Blood Type," which shows the history of all human races, beginning with the evolution of humans in North African and blood type O. So the question is: What blood type are you?
JR.: Oh, O.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CANGUS: I thought so. You and me are cousins.
JR.: So instead of my soul brother, you're my O brother. That's good, brother.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CANGUS: That's right. I worked at a radio station in San Francisco, and there's this one really, really black guy that works at the station, and we were having this discussion one day at the station, and I told him this story, and he looked - I asked him what his blood type was, and he said he was an O, and I said: I'm an O. That makes you and me cousins. And he looked at me, and he says: Cangus, you and I will never be cousins.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
JR.: Well, you know, it's very important that everybody listening to Neal's program know that 50,000 years ago, we were all in Africa. All of our ancestors came from Africa, probably around Ethiopia, and I know that means a lot to you, Neal, because your great assistant is an Ethiopian. But we all looked like we were Africans.
And then, you know, people migrated, and we all know this story now, it's scientifically proven and demonstrated, and so we're all brothers and sisters, literally and figuratively.
CANGUS: Except for one detail.
JR.: What's that?
CANGUS: That when they got somewhere around Europe, the blood type split into an A type, and then the A split into - headed over to Asia. And that's why most Asians are blood type A.
JR.: Oh interesting, I've never read this book. I'll check it out. Thank you.
CANGUS: Yeah, it'll help your understanding of the whole evolution of the human race.
JR.: Well, I need all the understanding help I can get.
CONAN: Cangus, thanks very much for the call. Here's an email from Kyle(ph) in MacArthur, Ohio: When my family immigrated from Ireland out, our last name was Mason-McWilliams(ph) when we landed. We ended up moving to Ohio with only the name Mason. Through my research, I found my ancestors owed a lot of money. The way we dealt with was to change our last name and move three states away.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
JR.: Sounds like a good decision to me.
CONAN: It sounds like a wise decision.
JR.: Neal, if I may, I want to just mention one thing, which wouldn't occur to you, but the book is dedicated, the reader is dedicated to a man named Frank Pearl, and Frank just died a couple days ago from lung cancer.
CONAN: Oh, sorry.
JR.: He was a - he's probably - many people say that he's the man who invented the leveraged buyout business, but I particularly loved him because he was the founder of Perseus Books. He was a great collector of Renaissance art. But more particularly in my life, he is the person who made it possible for Kwame Anthony Appiah and me to edit the Africana Encyclopedia.
We had tried for 25 years to raise the funding for this encyclopedia, and as you know, W.E.B. Du Bois, the greatest black intellectual of all time, wanted to edit the encyclopedia in 1909, couldn't get the money. Between 1931 and 1945, he couldn't get the money, and then he moved to Ghana in 1961, where he was made the editor-in-chief of the Encyclopedia Africana.
Kwame (unintelligible)'s request, and he died on the eve of the great march on Washington and could never, ever get the funds to do this encyclopedia.
I went to the University of Cambridge from Yale, as you know, and I met Anthony Appiah and Wole Soyinka, now the Nobel laureate, and in October of '73, we made a drunken pledge that we would fulfill Du Bois' dream. And nobody, nobody would fund this.
And I pitched it for the 25th time to a man named Frank Pearl. We were in the Carlyle Hotel, in his suite, and he turned to me. By this time in 1998, we had developed a little digital model of how we were going to do it, what became CD-ROMs. And he turned to me after a 45-minute presentation, and I told him about Dr. Du Bois, et cetera, and he said: How much do you need to do this project? And I said we need $2 million. He stuck out his hand, and he said you've got a deal. And not only that, he started the Civitas book imprint under Perseus to publish it, and now it is the leading publisher of books in the African-American experience. And I a year ago decided to dedicate the book to Frank, and fortunately, we emailed when he told me he had lung cancer, and I was able to tell him that the book was dedicated to him.
So Frank, I hope you're looking down. Thank you, thank you, thank you for all you've done for our people.
CONAN: Here's an email we have from Diane(ph): I found out by DNA that I have 10 percent of my DNA from East Africa from the mitochondrial DNA. The rest is European. This does not surprise me, since my mom was born in Bahia, Brazil.
JR.: Oh right, absolutely. We know - thanks to the work of Professor David Eltis and David Richardson, we now are able to count the slaves. And we know that between 1501 and 1866, 12.5 million Africans were shipped from Africa to the New World.
Of that 12.5, Neal, 15 percent died in the Middle Passage. Only 388,000 came directly to the United States. Another 50,000 touched down briefly in the Caribbean and then came, 450,000 max. All the rest of those Africans went to the Caribbean and to South America. Four point eight million went to Brazil, which of course is where Bahia is.
Brazil is the blackest country in the world after Nigeria. And so it doesn't surprise me that this person from Bahia can trace her maternal ancestors to Africa.
CONAN: Let's go next to Carlos(ph), Carlos with us from San Francisco.
CARLOS: Yes, hello.
CONAN: Hi, you're on the air, go ahead, please.
CARLOS: Oh great. I want to say first of all, I love your show, and I listen all the time, and I'm very happy to call in. And Mr. Gates, you've inspired me. I have an interesting history where it's not so much tracing my family, I know who they are, but I had a grandfather who led a coup in a Latin American country, along with some family members and some other generals, and was executed...
JR.: Oh, sorry.
CARLOS: ...for this. And so my grandmother...
JR.: That's the danger of coups.
CARLOS: ...kind of told me bits and pieces of the story. And, you know, as you grow up, people will start to kind of relinquish bits and more bits and more bits of the story. And when I was finally, I guess, old enough for her, in her eyes, that she thought I could take it, you know, she kind of told me, like, what happened.
But so where I'm kind of getting trouble to is it's - I'm finding this to be kind of like a "Da Vinci Code" situation, where no one really wants to talk about it, you know. And I'm having to kind of find symbols and things of - so I'm wondering, if you could recommend it, how could I get started tracing something like this, or who?
JR.: Oh. And what was the country?
CARLOS: This was in El Salvador...
JR.: El Salvador. I would...
CARLOS: ...in 1945. I'm sorry.
JR.: I would contact the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. Where are you based?
CARLOS: I'm in San Francisco.
JR.: In San Francisco. Well, there are great genealogical societies in San Francisco. I would go there to - connected to the Family History Library. All roads lead to Utah for records.
JR.: And then ask them to recommend specialists in Latin America, and more particularly, in the countries where your ancestors were. For my series, we always have Johni Cerny do the central research, and then we'll have genealogists in the particular country. Last Sunday, we did Martha Stewart, Margaret Cho, Sanjay Gupta. And we had genealogists who are specialists in Korea for Margaret Cho, Sanjay Gupta in India and Poland for Martha Stewart. And that's our...
CONAN: All the stories of immigrants.
JR.: Yes, absolutely. That's our two-prong approach. You'll find the records. You'll be amazed at how many records are there. It's astonishing to me.
CARLOS: Great. I will try that out. Thank you very much, and I enjoy all your programs.
JR.: Thank you.
CONAN: Carlos, thanks for the call. We're talking with Skip Gates, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. His new book is "The Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Reader." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, which is coming to you from NPR News.
And I look at this book, and there is important literary work that you pioneered. You've done so much writing on race and politics and culture, and some might say that all this research on families is anecdotal. What are you adding by adding the stories of family?
JR.: All historians generalize from particulars. And often, if you look at an historian's footnotes, the number of examples of specific cases is very, very small. As we do our family trees, we add specificity to the raw data from which historians can generalize.
So when you do your family tree and Margaret Cho does hers, and next Sunday Wanda Sykes and John Legend - we've done theirs, and a woman named Margarett Cooper - we're adding to the database that scholars can then draw from to generalize about the complexity of the American experience. And that's the contribution that family trees make to broader scholarship.
CONAN: Because you said in the book that scholarship on African-American history had been either the great man theory - the important figures - or the grand social movements theory.
JR.: That's right. And normal people like us have been left out of the narrative. And it's true for other ethnic groups. In two weeks, we do a program with Linda Chavez, the Fox News commentator, who's from a family who came in the 16th century to New Mexico. And they were Crypto-Jews, Reverso(ph) -Jews, people who pretended to be - because of the Inquisition.
CONAN: To use a word, they passed.
JR.: Yes, they passed. Absolutely. And she suspected this, but didn't know. Michelle Rodriguez, the actress who's part-Puerto Rican, part-Dominican, and Adrian Grenier, the star of "Entourage." And they have roots - Linda Chavez's case - deeper in America than the pilgrims. Who knows that history? And we do it with great particularity. And also we use the most rigorous standards of scholarship to verify all of our results.
CONAN: Let's get Julie on the line. Julie's calling us from Sacramento.
JULIE: Hi. Professor Gates, I want to thank you so much for your show. I watch it with my two children, nine and 11. And it has prompted more conversation in our house, and it's prompted us going to the library and getting books. And we are Jewish, and it's taught - it's really prompted us to talk about what it means to live joyfully in a world knowing that, not very long ago, someone was trying to eliminate you and your ancestors. And it's just given us so many opportunities to talk about things that I would not have been able to talk to them about on my own, necessarily.
JR.: Oh, thank you. That makes my day.
JULIE: Yeah. And, you know, just the idea that nobody's purely anything. We're all interconnected. And...
JULIE: ...you know, we have a chance to read books on slavery now and see what it was really like. And it, you know, becomes people are not just faceless objects. They're human beings.
JR.: Absolutely. You know, I'm so glad that you said that. The - we have - all the guests we've had - this is my fourth genealogy, genetic series. And we work with three DNA companies: 23andMe, Family Tree DNA and, as I've said earlier, African Ancestry. Do you know, ma'am, that in 23andMe's database, which is over - well over 100,000 people, not one African-American, not one has been tested who's 100-percent African? Not one.
Chris Rock's 20 percent European. Don Cheadle, 19 percent. In my case, when they revealed the results my admixture tests in front of millions of people - I was the chair of the Department of African, African-American Studies at the time - they revealed that that chair of this black studies department was 57 percent white.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
JULIE: Well, the same thing is true in the Jewish community. I mean, I look at my six-foot tall, blue-eyed husband, and I think, you know, somewhere in the past, there was a Polish ancestor somewhere. And we need to understand that this idea that, you know, you're over there and I'm over here and we're on separate teams is silly.
JR.: It's true. And speaking of teams, if I did the DNA of all the black players of the NBA or all the black players here in - or all the black men here in Washington or all the black men in the United States, 35 percent can't trace their Y-DNA back to Africa at all. Like me, they descend from a white man, a white man who impregnated their female ancestor, most likely, under terrible circumstances, in slavery.
So it shows that - I think the goal of my - if you ask me what the goal of this series is, it would be two-fold: first, to show that we're all immigrants, and secondly, that we're all mixed, that we all have been intermarrying, or interrelated sexually from the dawn of human history.
CONAN: Julie, thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it.
JULIE: Thank you.
CONAN: Skip, great to have you on the show. Nice to meet you.
JR.: Nice to meet you, Neal. Thanks, as always.
CONAN: It's the "Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Reader" that is just out, and its author joined us here in Studio 3A. Coming up, the strange end to the story of what happened after Alan Feuer met the other Alan Feuer - secret lives. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.