One of the things I like about PBS’ use of Henry Louis Gates, Jr., to work with different shows is that, as a historian, he gets to do different kinds of history. In Black In Latin America, for instance, he got to do a cultural and ethnic history of different countries, which was both interesting on its own and shed light on constructions of race in America.
Finding Your Roots uses a different method but has a similar focus, at least it its first episode. This is closer to what’s known as a “microhistory,” in which a very small, specific story is examined in detail, which may also reveal more about the wider culture. In this case, Gates finds a few celebrities and examines their ancestry, using both DNA testing and research into genealogy.
In the first episode, Gates focuses on Harry Connick, Jr., and Branford Marsalis, two New Orleans musicians and old friends, whose ancestry leads to larger discussions about race in New Orleans over time. Gates initially frames this as a discussion of the origins of musical talent, but that’s quickly discarded in favor of the more interesting discussions of history and family.
Connick’s easy charm initially grabs interest, as Gates interviews him about his conception of race, quickly drawing out a complex set of feelings. As a white, would-be musician growing up, Connick says, “I wanted to be two things, not in this order: I wanted to be fat and black. Cause all of my heroes were fat and black.” Connick’s earnestness would be painful in many situations, but Gates plays off it well, delighted and curious about different people’s perceptions about their own identities.
That earnestness continues through the episode, as Connick tries to desperately invent reasons why his ancestors wouldn’t have fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War, even as Gates tries to reassure him that we are not to blame for the sins of the fathers. He’s much more excited to discover a famous ancestor fighting for the “good guys” in the American Revolution. In all cases, his reactions seem innocent and genuine, with no over-analysis.
Marsalis, on the other hand, takes a more cerebral, but eventually just as interesting approach to the revelations of his family history. Part of that is that he’s got a more uncommon heritage. Gates explains why: Slavery meant that any records for African-Americans before the 1870 census are unlikely to ever exist. So it’s “something of a miracle” when they discover one of Marsalis’ ancestors in the 1850 census, a white man of German descent who had several children with, surprisingly, a free black woman. This leads to a fascinating digression about the role of free blacks in mid-19th century New Orleans, as well as creating an nice little implied story. Likewise, tracing the documents back to discover the origins of the Marsalis name in his family leads to another surprising, ambiguous story, illustrating the human component of history.
Finding Your Roots is slightly less successful when it goes into Gates’ personal history and pet projects. A digression involving supposed Native American heritage of the black men at his barber shop is a good way to deal with that stereotype, but doesn’t connect to Marsalis’ or Connick’s stories. I didn’t have the time to check out the further episodes in the series, which probably don’t have the connection to race that this one does. But if they keep the low-key charm and depth of this first episode, they’re going to be worth checking out.