Scholarly path had early roots for speaker

Genealogy and its potential for broader learning were the focus of a talk Wednesday.


WALLA WALLA -- A Harvard University scholar whose passion for tracing roots dates to his childhood sees genealogy as an incredible way to spark students' interest.

"Doing your genealogy and doing your DNA is the ultimate way of being exposed to knowledge -- complex knowledge about yourself," Henry Louis Gates Jr. said in a Wednesday night lecture at Whitman College.

Gates, a professor and scholar of African-American studies, spoke about his experience uncovering African American genealogy and history. He is known for his two series on Public Broadcasting -- "African American Lives" and "Faces of America."

"Few scholars in African American studies have done more to uncover and to revive the deep cultural and artistic links that unite the African American culture with roots in Africa and beyond," said Whitman professor Nadine Knight, who introduced Gates.

Gate's PBS series "African American Lives" was so successful that he later created "African American Lives 2" and "Faces of America," similar shows in which Gates helped well-known celebrities trace their lineage.

Gates has helped celebrities ranging from Maya Angelou and Oprah Winfrey to Chris Rock and Whoopi Goldberg find their heritage and trace their roots back to Africa.

The shows have been highly successful. "(African American Lives) broke every record for a black documentary in the history of PBS," Gates said.

In the documentaries, Gates used three tests to determine the ancestry of the participants. He tested Y-chromosome DNA, which is passed down from fathers to sons, mitochondrial DNA, which is passed down from mothers, and a test called admixture that determines the percentages of African, Native American, Asian and European ancestry.

Gates had these tests performed on his own DNA as well. He determined that he was descended from both European and African roots.

"They revealed in front of 8 million people that I am half a white man. This is very embarrassing, ladies and gentlemen," Gates said.

"Then I was worried that I had to give all that affirmative action money back," he joked.

Gates was able to trace his personal ancestry back to an African-American patriot during the Revolutionary War, which allowed Gates to join the Sons of the American Revolution. He has started a project at Harvard to find descendants of other African-American patriots at the time of the Revolution.

Gates' passion for genealogy started when he was 9. He saw an obituary of one of his relatives in his deceased grandfather's scrapbook. After that, Gates began interviewing his parents about their genealogy.

"I don't know why, but seeing my grandfather die and meeting this slave ancestor of mine ignited at the age of 9 my passion for finding out my family tree. I never ever have lost that passion for genealogy," Gates said.

Gates hopes that through the use of genealogy, America can revolutionize the way science and history are taught.

"We are trying to use the excitement that tracing your family tree and doing your DNA ignites in people to revolutionize how we teach science to inner city black and brown kids and how we teach history and social studies," Gates said.

Gates concluded his talk with a question and answer session.

One audience member asked what Gates thought of the recent proposition to censor some of Mark Twain's works in high schools. Gates said he opposes the censorship of Mark Twain's work.

Another audience member asked which celebrity gave the best interview in Gates' PBS documentaries, to which Gates answered the cellist Yo Yo Ma in the "Faces of America" documentary.

Joe Volpert can be reached at


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