Black History: Up close and personal

Last night, I was watching Henry Louis Gates on the Charlie Rose Show and they were discussing Gates project entitled African American lives. In this project, Gates traces the family trees of himself and other celebrities (including Dr. Ben Carson, Oprah, and Bishop T.D. Jakes) using all available historical documents along with detailed DNA analysis.

At the start of the show, Charlie Rose showed a clip of Gates asking Whoopi Goldberg why finding out her family background was so important. Whoopi replied, “Because we are the only people who have had their history stolen.” I was floored. And not because I didn’t agree with Whoopi but for all the Black history I have read in trying to connect and understand my people, I still feel that emptiness like someone stole something from me.

Therefore, I felt like I was learning about my own family’s history when I saw Roots and as Gates presented his findings to each participant. It was so interesting to see how giddy and anxious each person was to learn about their own history. And Gates made an interesting point by saying that everyone who participated was more interested in their genealogy rather than the genetics. That is to say the participants were not so interested in what percentage of their blood was White, Indian, etc., but rather they were more interested in the stories surrounding their family histories. Whether the stories were good or bad, you could almost sense the peace that befell each participant as if their life journey was now complete.

Another interesting point that Gates touched on was the implications of Blacks not knowing their family history. I think one obvious implication is the disconnect that exists between Africans and African-Americans. The other is the sense of destiny. I am always enamored when I hear people say, “I come from a long line of….”, or “My great great Grandpa used to…”. And after reading Barack Obama’s autobiography, I thought the best part of the book was when he went to Kenya to connect with his relatives on his father’s side. Like Obama, I think everyone, Blacks in particular, has a burning question that sits deep in their soul. Who am I? And life is sprinkled with clues to help answer that question. This is why I am inclined to think that if most Blacks knew for a fact which African country they were from, you would see more of an interest in Black people learning their history and being proud of their background.

I could be wrong but when you look at Black Caribbeans, the majority of the ones I know represent their country with a zeal that is electric. Now listen or watch any music video and you will see Black Americans representing their city or their block with the same amount of excitement as Black Caribbeans show for their country. Now just imagine if you heard rappers (who knew their ancestry) talk with pride about Mali, Angola, or Ethiopa? I think that would be very empowering because I am tempted to believe that it would be difficult to talk abut an African country while at the same time talking about drugs or killing. And again, I may be wrong.

But in any event, I suggest trying to trace your genealogy by at least asking questions of your older relatives. Because most of us probably can’t afford to get DNA analysis done of our families but at least through Henry Louis Gates, we can get a glimpse of what it may mean to find out our ancestry.

And just in case you were wondering, Gates asked the geneticist if he had any Indian in his bloodline, the geneticist said, “No, not one drop.”

African American Lives is showing on February 1st and 6th at 8pm, check your local listings.

Stay up fam,




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