Friday, May 18, 2012

Dr. Henry Louis Gates Talks About Finale of “Finding Your Roots”

This week I previewed the last episode of the PBS series Finding Your Roots, hosted by Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., which will air Sunday evening, May 20. The common thread that ties the stories of the three featured celebrities—actors Adrian Grenier, Michelle Rodriquez, and political commentator Linda Chavez—is Spanish ancestry.

In my recent interview with Dr. Gates, we talked about the impact of genetic testing in genealogical research and what it means for his series. “One of the things that we’re most proud about is that the DNA aspect of our series is cutting edge,” he said. When I first interviewed him in 2006, testing was restricted to either the direct paternal line or the direct maternal line. “We are now doing tests that did not exist when you and I first talked!” Gates said.

Linda Chavez has an impressive pedigree in the early history of the American Southwest, including an ancestor who served as the governor of New Mexico. Gates reveals that the families of the three celebrities attempted to keep their European bloodlines pure. This was especially the case for Michelle Rodriquez’s ancestors who were a heavily-intermarried family. “Everybody was trying to stay ‘pure,’ but none of these people ended up being pure,” says Gates. Linda Chavez learns she is of Jewish ancestry, while Michelle Rodriquez is revealed to be 21 percent African. Adrian Grenier confesses that he “never really embraced” his Latino heritage, but instead feels a stronger identity to the Apache descent he's heard about since childhood. Using DNA as a research tool, the host points out that Grenier, in fact, has only 8.44 percent Native American ancestry. The actor learns that his family tree is far more complex than he imagined.

“I want this to be a lesson in American history,” Gates says. “We all know about the Mayflower. But very few of us know that the people who are founding fathers and mothers came to the Southwest, to New Mexico, and came here before the 1600s. Most of us don’t know anything about that. We do not realize that a class of people came to America long before the Pilgrims came. Linda Chavez’s family has been here longer than anyone who came on the Mayflower.

Will Finding Your Roots return to PBS? “We’re planning season two right now, but we won’t air it until 2014,” Gates tells me. His next project, African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, will air in 2013.

“Millions and millions of people watch this series,” Gates says of Finding Your Roots. “We’re averaging 2.5 million people an episode. The first four episodes -- ten million people watched. That’s incredibly successful. It's very gratifying to me, and I’m deeply honored to be a part of it.”

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