January 26, 2006– Vol. 41, No. 24

A captivating look at the roots of ‘African American Lives’

Sarah Rodman

For millions of Americans a trip to Ellis Island can be like opening a personal history book.

But for most African Americans the computerized registries, immigrant lists and artifacts hold few secrets since their ancestors were brought to this country in chains and denied even the good old-fashioned American bureaucracy of taking names. Instead their names were taken.

Which is what makes PBS’s new two-part series “African American Lives” so fascinating and a fitting start to Black History Month on television.

Hosted and co-executive produced by Harvard University’s Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, Jr. the four-hour program, broken into two parts airing next Wednesday February 1 at 9:00 and the following Wednesday, is similar to the concept of “Roots” but says Gates, “‘Roots’ done with a cotton swab and a chemical analysis!”

“Lives” focuses on nine prominent black folks: Gates himself, Oprah Winfrey, actor Chris Tucker, musician-producer Quincy Jones, pastor and author Bishop T.D. Jakes, actress Whoopi Goldberg, astronaut Mae Jemison, neurosurgeon Ben Carson and Gates’ Harvard colleague and author Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot. Through interviews with relatives, extensive public records searches and cutting edge genetic technology Gates and his team of family tree detectives are able to trace the lineage of each participant back many generations and, in some cases, pinpoint where their ancestors hailed from in Africa with surprising results for some of the participants.

For each person profiled the journey is an emotional one fraught with surprise, sorrow and wonder as they pore over yellowed photos, land deeds, death certificates and hand in DNA swabs with high hopes.

Among the highlights are Jakes learning a tragic story about his grandfather and Tucker’s visceral response to discovering his great-grandfather almost single-handedly kept his small Georgia community together. Tucker and Gates also heads to visit the area where the “Rush Hour” actor’s bloodline begins with touching and comic results.

Although Tucker is the comic, Winfrey’s tale, though devastating in parts, may get the biggest laugh. The Big O recounts her grandmother instructing her to “get yourself some good white folks” when she grows up, to make her life easier. Reflects Winfrey “I regret that she didn’t live to see that I did get some good white folks… working for me!” As she remembers watching her grandmother boil clothes and hang them on the line in rural Mississippi she understatedly declares, “She couldn’t imagine this life.”

Jones is particularly engaging when discussing the brothel his grandfather owned and the way in which music seduced him when his mother was committed to an asylum. When he saw the big bands of Basie and Ellington he was overjoyed at the idea of “a group of black men who were dignified, unified, fun, worldly, smart and talented. I said this is the family I want to be in.”

Since the subjects range in age from late 30’s to late 70’s the series also almost incidentally neatly handles a good chunk of black American history with plenty of evocative archival footage of the rural south, the inner-city that grew up during the great migration and the civil rights movement.

For viewers who know a good deal about any given person being detailed the early going might be a little pokey as tales of, say, Winfrey’s childhood, are well-trod ground.

But even the talk show host’s history contains revelations that are startling, including a torturous deal she made with a childhood molestor: he could have his way with her if he wouldn’t beat his girlfriend, her second cousin. Stories like that and of unfathomable oppression are somewhat tempered by happier tales of community and family.

Perhaps the best thing that will come out of “African-American Lives” is the spark it may ignite in viewers of all races to talk to their parents, grandparents and elderly relatives to uncover more of their own personal history. And for African-Americans specifically, famous or not, this special serves as an excellent reminder of the giants on whose shoulders we stand and who deserve an illuminating light cast on them as a measure of well-deserved respect.




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