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Faces of America: How 12 Extraordinary People Discovered their Pasts

Overview

As a nation of immigrants, the American experience is vibrantly defined by the diverse racial, ethnic, cultural, and religious heritage of its people. Perhaps because so many of their ancestors migrated to this country relatively recently, Americans are especially concerned with their family trees, carving out personal histories by combing through documents such as wills and estate records, federal and state censuses, and private family papers, and mining the stories and tales ...

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Faces of America: How 12 Extraordinary People Discovered their Pasts

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Overview

As a nation of immigrants, the American experience is vibrantly defined by the diverse racial, ethnic, cultural, and religious heritage of its people. Perhaps because so many of their ancestors migrated to this country relatively recently, Americans are especially concerned with their family trees, carving out personal histories by combing through documents such as wills and estate records, federal and state censuses, and private family papers, and mining the stories and tales handed down to them by their forebears.

Since 2007, the Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., has been helping African Americans find long-buried details about their ancestors by researching their family trees and then, when the paper trail ends, by analyzing their DNA and marrying that information to a wealth of historical data. Now, in Faces of America Gates explores the family trees of twelve of America’s most recognizable and extraordinary citizens, individuals who learn that they are of Asian, English, French, German, Irish, Italian, Jamaican, Jewish, Latino, Native American, Swiss, and Syrian ancestry: Inaugural poet Elizabeth Alexander, chef Mario Batali, comedian and television personality Stephen Colbert, writer Louise Erdrich, writer Malcolm Gladwell, actress Eva Longoria, cellist Yo Yo Ma, writer and director Mike Nichols, former monarch of Jordan Queen Noor, surgeon and author Dr. Mehmet Oz, actress Meryl Streep, and Olympic gold medalist and figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi.

In addition, each of the subjects in Faces of America underwent dense genotyping to trace their genetic ancestry on their father’s line, their mother’s line, and their percentages of European, Asian, Native American, and African ancestry. Faces of America unfolds as a riveting journey into our country’s complex ancestral past. Readers will share in the surprise and delight, the shock and sadness of these twelve individuals themselves as Gates unveils their rich family stories, traced back to their arrival on America’s shores, and beyond, deep into the history of their ancestors’ countries of origin. America, as Gates shows us, is a nation of many historical threads, interwoven and united in the present moment. In this compelling book, Gates demonstrates that where we come from profoundly and fundamentally informs who we are today.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Mitochondrial DNA, passed from mother to child, provides, upon close examination, a record of ancient migration patterns and family groupings. It is what links groups of human beings to each other and it is one of many genetic mysteries that motivated Harvard professor Gates to unravel the historical and genetic past of 12 celebrities, artists, and intellectuals in this follow-up to a previous examination of notable African-Americans. Based on the PBS series of the same name hosted by the author, the book is a deceptively breezy read that contains profound revelations on race, on biology vs. social constructs, and how ancestry can subtly (or resoundingly) manifest itself. There are surprises--he finds a common ancestor between Queen Noor of Jordan and African-American academic Elizabeth Alexander; both are 37th great-granddaughters of Charlemagne--and in getting such subjects as Mike Nichols to open up about their pasts, he finds how powerfully the past informs the present. Gates offers a book stuffed with epiphanies that will spark curiosity among readers about their own ancestry as well as their possible connections to each other. (Aug.)
Library Journal
This book is based upon the recent PBS documentary of the same name. Gates (Alphonse Fletcher University Professor, Harvard; Tradition and the Black Atlantic) researches the ancestry of 12 famous Americans. Known for his passion for genealogy, Gates extends his interest outside his own expertise, with the help of scientists and genetics labs, offering each celebrity the vivid story of his/her family's history. Gates clearly explains the role of DNA in the research but does not overstress the reader with science. The true essence of his book is what he uncovers in each subject's ancestry. Gates's goal in looking into the heritage of people like Meryl Streep, Stephen Colbert, and Kristi Yamaguchi is to share information about the challenges and difficulties immigrants to the United States have endured in starting a new life in a new country. Gates also includes each individual's reflections on what he/she has learned in the process.Verdict In a time of volatile debate on immigration, Gates's book supports the idea that the United States is a nation built from the contributions of immigrants. The family histories here provide an inspiring and engaging read for genealogy buffs, students of American history, and fans of Gates's previous work.—Susan E. Montgomery, Rollins Coll. Lib., Winter Park, FL
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780814732649
  • Publisher: New York University Press
  • Publication date: 7/6/2010
  • Pages: 290
  • Sales rank: 1,025,864
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Henry Louis Gates, Jr., is the director of the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research and holder of the distinguished title of Alphonse Fletcher University Professor at Harvard University. He is the author of twelve books, including several award-winning works of literary criticism as well as the memoir Colored People; The Future of the Race, co-authored with Cornel West; Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man; and Tradition and the Black Atlantic. Gates has hosted ten PBS television specials, including Looking for Lincoln and the two part series, African American Lives, upon which his book In Search of Our Roots (2009) was based. He is winner of the 2009 Ralph Lowell Award for Outstanding Contributions to Public Television and the 2010 NAACP Image Award for Non-Fiction.

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