In Search of Our Roots: How 19 Extraordinary African Americans Reclaimed Their Past

In Search of Our Roots: How 19 Extraordinary African Americans Reclaimed Their Past

by Henry Louis Gates Jr.
     
 

View All Available Formats & Editions

Unlike most white Americans who, if they are so inclined, can search their ancestral records, identifying who among their forebears was the first to set foot on this country’s shores, most African Americans, in tracing their family’s past, encounter a series of daunting obstacles. Slavery was a brutally efficient nullifier of identity, willfully denying

Overview

Unlike most white Americans who, if they are so inclined, can search their ancestral records, identifying who among their forebears was the first to set foot on this country’s shores, most African Americans, in tracing their family’s past, encounter a series of daunting obstacles. Slavery was a brutally efficient nullifier of identity, willfully denying black men and women even their names. Yet, from that legacy of slavery, there have sprung generations who’ve struggled, thrived, and lived extraordinary lives.

For too long, African Americans’ family trees have been barren of branches, but, very recently, advanced genetic testing techniques, combined with archival research, have begun to fill in the gaps. Here, scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., backed by an elite team of geneticists and researchers, takes nineteen extraordinary African Americans on a once unimaginable journey, tracing family sagas through U.S. history and back to Africa.

Those whose recovered pasts collectively form an African American “people’s history” of the United States include celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey, Whoopi Goldberg, Chris Rock, Don Cheadle, Chris Tucker, Morgan Freeman, Tina Turner, and Quincy Jones; writers such as Maya Angelou and Bliss Broyard; leading thinkers such as Harvard divinity professor Peter Gomes, the Reverend T. D. Jakes, neurosurgeon Ben Carson, and sociologist Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot; and famous achievers such as astronaut Mae Jemison, media personality Tom Joyner, decathlete Jackie Joyner-Kersee, and Ebony and Jet publisher Linda Johnson Rice.

More than a work of history, In Search of Our Roots is a book of revelatory importance that, for the first time, brings to light the lives of ordinary men and women who, by courageous example, blazed a path for their famous descendants. For a reader, there is the stirring pleasure of witnessing long-forgotten struggles and triumphs–but there’s an enduring reward as well. In accompanying the nineteen contemporary achievers on their journey into the past and meeting their remarkable forebears, we come to know ourselves.


From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

In this companion book to a two-part PBS series, Gates (Colored People) combines rigorous historical research with DNA analysis to recreate the family trees of African-American celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and Quincy Jones, as well as intellectuals, authors, comedians, musicians and athletes. Most of the subjects knew very little about ancestors as recent as grandparents, to say nothing of the information DNA results provided about their African and European ancestry. Gates connects gaps in ancestral knowledge to the fundamental evil of the American slave era, when slave owners and sellers purposely "robbed black human beings of... all aspects of civilization that make a human being 'human': names, birth dates, family ties." Though the book relies too heavily on the notion that knowing one's ancestry leads to a better understanding of aspects of one's own personality, Gates proves in case after case that the past brings itself to bear on the present. In Chris Rock's case, had he known he had a 19th-century ancestor who had served as a South Carolina legislator, "it might have taken away the inevitability that I was going to be nothing." (Jan.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

Harvard historian Gates argues that family history has a special place in African American culture, in part because the American institution of slavery allowed for the creation of precious few records of African Americans' lives. By detailing individuals' stories, he writes, we may tell an important part of the larger American story. In these genealogies, Gates uses the search for the family history of 19 notable African Americans to form a narrative that goes beyond family lore. He illuminates the technical challenges of tracing African Americans' roots, but he also shares his famous subjects' memories and reflections about their families' reticence in discussing slavery or telling ancestors' stories about it. These elements combine in an intelligent narrative that will be accessible even to those who aren't genealogists. A closing chapter introduces some of the tools and methods for African American genealogical research, with bibliographic sources. This book is an able companion to the PBS series Gates hosted, but it stands on its own as well. Essential for genealogy collections; recommended for all public and high school libraries.
—Emily-Jane Dawson

Kirkus Reviews
Chatty companion volume to the landmark PBS documentary African American Lives. The folksy persona displayed onscreen by the two-part program's writer/producer was a decided change of pace for gadfly public intellectual Gates (director, W.E.B. Du Bois Institute/Harvard Univ.; America Behind the Color Line, 2004, etc.), whose scholarly work can be starchy. Often going by his nickname "Skip," Gates led celebrity guests like Maya Angelou, Quincy Jones and Morgan Freeman through their family history, with an impressive team of genealogists and DNA scientists helping to clear up many mysteries. That same engaging tone emanates from this book, which covers all 19 people profiled on the show and adds a chapter on "How to Trace Your Own Roots." It's the rare African-American family that can track any relative back past the 19th century, and none of Gates's guests knew nearly as much about their family as they would have liked. ("I just want to know exactly what happened, whatever it is," was a common statement.) There's not a dull story in these pages. Tina Turner found out she was actually one-third white: "So that's why I love Europe," she quipped. Reverend Peter J. Gomes learned that his Cape Verdean background included several Jewish ancestors. Don Cheadle's ancestors were owned, not by whites, but by Native Americans. Long-held family myths were dispelled by hard genealogical or genetic data, often prompting very emotional responses, but the historical truths that replaced them were sometimes even more fascinating. Like the documentary, the book aims to be as approachable as possible-Gates's frequent use of "we" is a nicely familial touch-but there are times when this stance becomesrepetitive and bland, despite the intrinsically intriguing material. In the end, though, Gates achieves his goal: to produce a Roots for the 21st century. Bright, inquisitive take on the multifarious murky stories and relationships that make up the history of a dispossessed people. Author tour to Washington D.C., New York, Boston

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780307409737
Publisher:
Crown/Archetype
Publication date:
01/27/2009
Sold by:
Random House
Format:
NOOK Book
File size:
11 MB
Note:
This product may take a few minutes to download.

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 several award-winning works of literary criticism as well as the memoir Colored People; The Future of the Race, co-authored with Cornel West; and Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man.


From the Hardcover edition.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network

     

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >