Have you ever been to Ellis Island? It is a remarkably moving tourist site, the repository of so very many historical memories. But when I observed the muffled whispers of the pilgrims who visit there and when I felt their emotions, I realized that it was more of a shrine than it is a venue for tourists, just another stop in a crowded day of “doing” Manhattan. For millions of immigrants, it was the gateway not only to the New World, but to a veritable new world of identity, an identity as an American citizen. People come to Ellis Island every day, especially white Americans, hoping to find a connection to history by uncovering or reexperiencing their ancestors’ past. I have to confess that I envy my friends who can go there and discover their family’s journey from Europe to the United States in the early decades of the twentieth century. All they have to do is know the name of one of their ancestors who immigrated to this country, type that name into a computer, and, like magic, they can access a record of the day on which that person arrived here! They can even pay a hundred dollars to get a copy of that record and to have their ancestor’s name inscribed outside, on a wall of immigrants, a veritable Who’s Who of European immigration to this country in the early quarter of the last century. I wish it were so for all Americans.
Unfortunately, there is no Ellis Island for those of us who are descendants of survivors of the African slave trade. Our ancestors were brought to this country against their will. When they arrived, they were stripped of their history, their family ties, and their cultural and linguistic identities. And we, their ancestors, have been unable to learn much about our African heritage until very, very recently.
This fact has shaped me as a person and as a scholar. I have been obsessed with my family tree since I was a boy. I regretted the fact that the slave past had robbed me of so much knowledge of my ancestors—of the privilege of knowing even their names. I remember when my grandfather Edward Gates died in 1960. I was ten years old. Following his burial, my father showed me my grandfather’s scrapbooks. And there, buried in those yellowing pages of newsprint, was an obituary—the obituary, to my astonishment, of the oldest known Gates ancestor, our matriarch, an ex-slave named Jane Gates. “An estimable colored woman,” the obituary said, also mentioning that she had been a midwife. I wanted to know how I got here from there, from the mysterious and shadowy preserve of slavery in the depths of the black past. I became obsessed with my family tree and peppered my father with questions about the names and dates of my ancestors, which, ever so dutifully, I wrote down in a notebook.
I knew I had white ancestors. My father, his six brothers, and their sister were clearly part white. “Light and bright and damned near white,” my dad used to joke. I wanted to learn the names of both my black and my white ancestors. As I got older, I especially wanted to learn the name of our white patriarch, the white man who impregnated my great-great-grandmother Jane Gates. I wanted to see my white ancestors’ coat of arms! I remember as a child, we used to look at ads in the back of magazines encouraging the reader to send in his or her name and receive by return mail, for twenty dollars or so, one of those colorful European coats of arms, the sort one would see hanging on the wall of a castle in England. I thought about ordering one for the Gates family. I knew it wouldn’t have anything to do with me, necessarily, but who knew for sure? Perhaps I was related to these white Gates people, someone such as the Revolutionary War general Horatio Gates. Slavery had robbed “the means of knowing,” as the great black abolitionist Frederick Douglass once put it, from most black people who were descended from a white ancestor.
I even allowed myself to dream about learning the name of the very tribe we had come from in Africa. (I have to confess to certain delusions of grandeur: I was hoping that we were descended from African chiefs, not just any old Africans! And who wouldn’t want to be? If not an African chief, then most certainly an Indian chief!) When Alex Haley’s Roots came along in 1976, I had one serious case of roots envy. I became an historian, in part, I think, out of this desire to know myself more fully, which, of course, over time became a desire to understand others as well, to learn about the past of my people, my black kinsmen, and, through their stories, to learn about the past of the African American people, and, ultimately, the past of my nation—at least my own genealogical tributary of this nation. Finding my own roots has been my lifelong quest ever since my grandfather’s funeral. And the passion to learn the names of my ancestors was never very far beneath the surface of my motivation to become a scholar. When I was an undergraduate student at Yale, I determined that one day I would know—at least I would work hard at knowing—who, and what, “my people” had been.
After decades of being frustrated by my inability to trace my family back beyond slavery—back to one maternal ancestor in the Gates family line—I decided to do something about it. So I invited eight prominent African Americans to allow their family histories to be researched for a documentary film series for PBS. We traced their families, combing over every anecdote we heard and every little scrap of paper we could find—and when the paper trail would end, inevitably, in the abyss of slavery, we would then try to find their African roots through the science of DNA. It was a risky experiment—no one had tried this before—but it turned out to be a remarkably rewarding experience. I called upon scholarly colleagues from various disciplines—professional genealogists, state-of-the-art DNA researchers, top-notch historians—and invited them to help me. They joined this quest willingly, even eagerly.
I learned one thing very quickly: sifting through the detritus of African American genealogical history is a complex task, one that can challenge the expertise of even the most patient and well-trained expert. So many of the most interesting and compelling family stories about our ancestors passed down over Thanksgiving or Christmas dinners, or at family reunions, turn out to be more wishful thinking than fact, sometimes containing a kernel of truth, but many times not! In the process, working with these experts, I learned a great deal—about African American history, about American history, but primarily about myself, deepening my understanding of the African and African American past, certainly, but even more, deepening my understanding of myself, of who I am as a person. I believe that this was true for the eight other subjects in my television series African American Lives (which aired in February 2006), including Oprah Winfrey, Quincy Jones, Whoopi Goldberg, Chris Tucker, Bishop T.D. Jakes, Dr. Ben Carson, Dr. Mae Jemison, and Dr. Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot.
But a PBS documentary goes by in a flash. It’s a few hours long and then—bam
—it’s over. And there was so much more that I learned and wanted to talk about that I couldn’t fit into the series. So many people, black and white, have come up to me on the street or in airports since the series aired, asking important questions. The most common question is this: “How can I do this myself; how can I trace my own roots?” To help them answer this question, I decided to produce another PBS documentary, titled “Oprah’s Roots,” and, more important, to write this book to show how to construct a family tree—anyone’s family tree—by looking at the family history of one of the world’s most famous black Americans: Oprah Winfrey. Even I wanted to learn how “Oprah Gail Winfrey,” a descendant of illiterate slaves in Mississippi, dirt-poor scratchers of the soil, became the inimitable Oprah, a cultural icon wherever human beings can watch TV or film. I wanted to work my way back through time, starting with the Oprah millions of us watch on TV every day, and ending somewhere, I hoped, in Africa, centuries earlier.
Why Oprah? Well, I had two main reasons. First of all, Oprah fascinates me, as she apparently does just about everyone else on the planet. I admire her tremendously for what she’s accomplished and who she is. She’s sui generis
. There’s never been anybody in history like her, and I wanted to know how this compelling person became one of the most popular and fascinating individuals in the world. I wanted to know where she got her uncanny sense of the zeitgeist. When I was a teenager, we used to tell a joke about James Brown—we’d say that James Brown knew what the average black man was thinking just by waking up in the morning. And then he would set whatever that was to music. He could feel the pulse of the black community without even trying, seemingly unconsciously. James Brown was Black Everyman, if not Black Everywoman.
I think Oprah, somehow, is as close to Everywoman as any human being has ever been, for white people and black people and just about every other shade of people, and for males as well as females. I wanted to know where that came from—what her family tree might tell us, if anything, about the source of this extraordinarily rare capacity for empathy and communication. Of course, there’s no way to know for sure. There never is. There are millions of biographies of famous people, and none explains its subject fully. Yet each can teach us something, bringing us, perhaps, just a little closer to an explanation that makes sense of how a hero becomes a hero. And that’s what I set out to do here: get a little closer to an understanding of what makes Oprah tick by looking at her ancestors.
Although it’s vulgar to say that we are our ancestors, or that who we are individually is the result, primarily, of the traits and characteristics and personalities of our ancestors, there is something that is, at the same time, so obviously true about that statement that most of us simply take this for granted. “Who are his people?” My father, at ninety-three, still asks that question when I introduce him to a new friend. It’s almost embarrassing to have to say it, but we are an extension of our pasts, our own and that of our family. We are not trapped by our pasts, thank goodness. Our life choices aren’t delimited or predetermined by the choices that our ancestors made. But we are, in part, inevitably the product of our past, our individual pasts and our collective past. That’s one of the reasons so many of us furiously swab our cheeks for our DNA: to learn what our “pasts” reveal about our present, indeed, about “us.” We all look to antecedents in an attempt to understand what makes each of us individuals, what makes us unique, certainly, but what also ties us to a common past, even if that past is only as broad as the branch of a family tree. Paradoxically, none of us wants to be imprisoned by the limitations of our family’s history; rather, we seem to want to use knowledge of that history as a springboard to new possibilities, as both a comfort zone and an enabling mechanism, a set of facts necessary for a certain psychic comfort, but not sufficient for foreclosing our individual life possibilities.
My second reason for wanting to look at Oprah’s family history was more complicated. At bottom, I think, I had a suspicion that it would be a most fascinating story—and more than that, that it would provide a cogent and compelling means through which to interest a wide array of people in the larger issues of the American past and the importance of genealogy, especially black genealogy, within that past. As I’ve said, these subjects are dear to me. And Oprah herself is fascinated with them. She told me once that she thinks it’s crucial for African Americans to understand their family history—and she speaks eloquently about the importance of understanding our grand history, our collective history, in terms of that family history. “Knowing your family history,” she says, “is knowing your worth—your whole worth. And I don’t mean your monetary value. It’s about everything that everybody gave up for you. It allows you to know what your mama went through, your grandmama went through, your great-grandmama went through, your grandfathers. It lets you know that you have been paid for—that there are lots of people who come before you who would have liked to have had what you have. I think about this all the time—you know, my ancestors could not have imagined the life that I now lead but the work that they did prepared the way.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself.
Copyright © 2007 by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.