Henry Louis Gates Jr: My Yiddishe Mama

Roundup: Talking About History

[Mr. Gates, the executive producer and host of "African American Lives," a four-part series beginning tonight on PBS, is the W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of the Humanities at Harvard and director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for Afro-American Research there. He is the editor, along with Kwame Anthony Appiah, of "Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience" (Running Press, 2003).]

Since 1977, when I sat riveted every night for a week in front of my TV, I have had "Roots" envy. Even if scholars remain deeply skeptical about his methodology, Alex Haley went to his grave believing that he had found the ethnic group from which his African ancestors originated before surviving the dreaded Middle Passage.

Two years before, I proudly told a fellow student at Cambridge, an Anglo-Ghanaian, that I could trace my slave ancestors back to 1819, the birth date of Jane Gates, my paternal great-great-grandmother. I wondered if he could do better?

He invited me to accompany him to the University Library, where, buried deep in the stacks, he found a copy of Burke's Peerage, then walked me through his mother's English ancestry with certainty back to one Richard Crispe who died in 1575, and who, the book said "probably" descended from William Crispe, who had died in 1207. His father's side, members of the Asante people in Ghana, he could trace to the 17th century. The roots of my "Roots" envy?

After years of frustration, I determined to do something about it. So I decided to invite eight prominent African Americans to allow their DNA to be tested and their family histories to be researched for a documentary film. When the paper trail would end, inevitably, in the abyss of slavery, we would then try to find their African roots through science.

Having been involved in after-school programs, I was hoping to get inner-city school kids engaged by the wonders of both genetics and archival research.

But I had ulterior motives, too. I wanted to find my white patriarch, the father of Jane Gates's children. Maybe genetics could verify the family legend that the father of Jane's children was an Irish man from Cresaptown, Md., a slave-holder named Samuel Brady. Perhaps I could give Jane her Thomas Jefferson-Sally Hemings moment!

I also had hopes for my African origins. Throughout my adult life, I've always been drawn to Nigeria's Yoruba culture -- to its cuisine, its legends, its rhythms and its songs. As a Fela Ransome-Kuti album played in my head, I wondered whether geneticists could determine that I had physical, not only spiritual, affinities to the Yoruba.

Our genealogists as well as our geneticists were given a tough assignment. Five generations ago, each of us has 32 ancestors, or two to the fifth power. If we go back 10 generations, or 300 years, each of us has 1,024 theoretical ancestors, or two to the 10th power. Even with genetics, we can only trace two of our family lines. The first African slaves arrived in Virginia in 1619; the slaves were freed in 1865, and appeared with two legal names for the first time in the 1870 census. Penetrating the name barrier of 1870 required detailed and imaginative sleuthing through the records of slave-holders, praying that they somehow mentioned one of their slaves by first name, in wills, tax records or estate division papers....

... What of my own case of "Roots" envy? We advertised for, and found, two male descendants of Samuel Brady, and compared their Y-DNA with mine. My haplotype, common in Western Ireland and the Netherlands, has as much in common genetically with Samuel Brady as it does, I suppose, with half of the males in Galway and Amsterdam. So much for that bit of family lore.

On the other hand, our genealogical research uncovered, to my astonishment, one of my fifth great-grandfathers and two fourth great-grandfathers, two born in the middle of the 18th century. I learned that one, John Redman, a Free Negro, even fought in the American Revolution. Despite the fact that we didn't find Jane Gates's children's father, we believe that we have found her mother, a slave, born circa 1799.

As for my mitochondrial DNA, my mother's mother's mother's lineage? Would it be Yoruba, as I fervently hoped? My Fela Ransome-Kuti fantasy was not exactly borne out. A number of exact matches turned up, leading straight back to that African Kingdom called Northern Europe, to the genes of (among others) a female Ashkenazi Jew. Maybe it was time to start listening to "My Yiddishe Mama."
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