*As “Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.” enters its third season, it’s clear the show’s concept of taking viewers along for the journey to uncover the family history of celebrities has provided the perfect vehicle to accomplish its main goal.
According to host Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the goal in question is to show that we’re more alike than we think, regardless of someone’s race.
“No matter what our phenotypical differences, no matter how apparently different you might look from Bill O’Reilly, you’re fundamentally the same,” Gates explained to Jet. “I really want this to be a model for young African Americans. I want every Black school kid to have to study DNA after they spit in a test tube to get their DNA analyzed. My real goal is to make a contribution to race relations in America, to defeat these racists who see us as being fundamentally different.”
O’Reilly is among the celebrities slated to appear on the new season of “Finding Your Roots.” The 10-week series, which airs on PBS and profiles 28-30 celebrities each season, features Gates and a team of genealogists who help celebrities examine and determine the global origins of their family trees. In addition, “Finding Your Roots” sheds light on the family histories of influential people who contributed to shaping the identity of America.
“My motto is, ‘Know thy ancestry. Know thy self,’ Gates shared. “Do you know that you actually have DNA from all of your ancestors going back 180 years? So if you had your ideal family tree and you were looking at it, everyone born up until 180 years before you, has given you some of their DNA. You’re a walking encyclopedia of your mother’s family and your father’s family. So these people are shaping you and you don’t even know it.”
Along with its celebrity focus, viewers are also educated as Gates utilizes the “Finding Your Roots” to put a hole in longstanding myths pertaining to DNA and African-American history.
“The other thing that may surprise you is that very few African-Americans have any Native American ancestry,” the famed historian says. “It’s a myth. We all think that we have direct Indian ancestry. The reason your ancestor had high cheekbones and straight black hair is because of your white ancestors. If we did the DNA of all the Black men in the NBA for example, 35% descend from a white man. Thirty-five percent of all Black men that you see on the streets of Harlem and the South side of Chicago, Watts, wherever, descend from a white man because of rape, sexuality and slavery.”
“I asked Chris Rock on camera for Finding Your Roots, where did this myth come from? And he says, ‘It’s easier for obvious reasons to make up a myth about Native American ancestry than to think about rape, to think about slavery and how your ancestors got those high cheekbones and straight black hair.’ And I hadn’t thought about it, but he’s absolutely correct,” Gates added.
Joining O’Reilly for the new season are TV powerhouse Shonda Rhimes and comedian Keenen Ivory Wayans. Further breaking down the Native American connection with blacks, Gates stated that most black people have less than 1 percent Native American in their DNA, and average around 24 percent European.
“When I started this, I thought only Black people didn’t know about their ancestry. But nobody knows anything about their ancestry unless you’re a king or queen. White people are just as unaware of their ancestry as we are,” Gates shared with Jet while noting that some of the things celebrities discover about their family isn’t as flattering.
“Keenen had an ancestor who was a personal servant to the governor of South Carolina and he came north, became free and then went back to be with his master,” Gates recalls about a member of the former “In Living Color” star’s family. “You know you’re expecting to find Nat Turner, but you never know what you’re gonna find. But he wanted to be with his master — his friends and went back in slavery and was proud of it.”
“Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.” airs tonight and every Tuesday at 8/7c on PBS.