The basic drive to discover who we are and where we come from is at the core of the new 10-part PBS series Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the 12th series from Professor Gates, the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor at Harvard University and director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research. Filmed on location across the United States, the series premieres nationally Sundays, March 25 – May 20 at 8 pm ET on PBS (check local listings). (Note: program one and two are scheduled on Sunday, March 25 from 8-9 pm and 9-10 pm respectively.)
Continuing on the quest begun in his previous projects, African American Lives (2006), African American Lives 2 (2008) and Faces of America (2010), Gates finds new ways to, as he says, “get into the DNA of American culture.” In each hour-long episode, he takes viewers along for the journey with one celebrity pair bound together by an intimate, sometimes hidden link, treks through layers of ancestral history, uncovers secrets and surprises of their family trees and shares life-altering discoveries.
“Finding Your Roots will be a moving, uplifting, entertaining and enlightening experience for viewers,” says Gates. “Genealogy is more popular than ever, but it’s far more than a solitary pastime. It’s a fascinating endeavor that can drastically alter both history and the way we think of ourselves.”
Guest pairings include: New Orleans jazz masters and close friends Harry Connick, Jr. and Branford Marsalis, whose European immigrant ancestors made very different choices in the slave-era South; spiritual leaders Angela Buchdahl, Yasir Qadhi and Rick Warren, whose ancestors’ paths to America were shaped by religious convictions; and education superstar Geoffrey Canada and media legend Barbara Walters, who both rediscover family histories long obscured by forgotten name changes.
In other episodes, public servants Condoleezza Rice and Congressman John Lewis, featured in different hours, trace their contemporary-day strength to enslaved ancestors, actor Robert Downey, Jr. marvels at the vastness of his family tree dating back to the 13th century, and Michelle Rodriguez discovers family secrets and heroes that her parents left behind when they came to the United States as immigrants. Gates travels with his guests throughout the series, sharing the details of ancestral stories and helping process what they’ve learned. He accompanies musician John Legend to a rock concert, goes backstage on Broadway with Samuel L. Jackson, joins Newark, N.J. Mayor Cory Booker as he reveals the root-seeking results to his parents, and trails CNN chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta and Geoffrey Canada to memorable family reunions.
Working closely with leading U.S. genealogists (including staff of the New England Genealogical Historical Society and Johni Cerny, co-author of the acclaimed The Source: Guidebook for American Genealogy) and ancestry experts from around the world, Gates and his production team comb through family stories to discover unknown histories and relatives the guests never knew existed. When paper trails end for each story, the team turns to top geneticists and DNA diagnosticians (such as the genetic testing service 23 & Me) to analyze each participant’s genetic code, tracing their bloodlines and occasionally debunking their long-held notions and beliefs.
Reaching beyond celebrity stories, Gates also seeks out everyday individuals (on-air and online) who are wrestling with questions of identity. He visits with employees at his favorite barber shop, and engages Harlem students who are curious about their genetics.
A far-reaching educational and community outreach initiative will accompany the broadcast, including: locally produced short excerpts to be shown on partner stations in conjunction with Finding Your Roots; a set of standards-based lesson plans for upper elementary and middle school classrooms that use segments from the series; live webinars; and a multimedia guide for educators to encourage use of the series and its additional resources with students.
A Finding Your Roots companion website (http://www.pbs.org/wnet/finding-your-roots), will present video from the series, profiles of featured guests and an ongoing blog from executive producer, writer and presenter Henry Louis Gates, Jr. In addition to his blog, the website will include material from the production team and the scientists who conducted research for the series. With a heavy focus on online engagement, the website will allow fans to submit stories about their own family histories, and browse those others have uploaded. The website also will offer a comprehensive list of resources that viewers can use to learn more about their own genealogy.
A Finding Your Roots Facebook page (http://www.facebook.com/FindingYourRootsPBS) will foster conversation among users fascinated by genealogy, as well as showcase user-submitted photos, videos and stories related to their genetic lineages and family histories.
Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is a production of Kunhardt McGee Productions, Inkwell Films and WNET in association with Ark Media. WNET is the parent company of THIRTEEN and WLIW21, New York’s public television stations and operator of NJTV. For nearly 50 years, WNET has been producing and broadcasting national and local documentaries and other programs for the New York community.
Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Stephen Segaller, Peter Kunhardt, and Dyllan McGee are executive producers of Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Rachel Dretzin is senior producer. Leslie Asako Gladsjo is senior story editor.
Corporate funding is provided by The Coca-Cola Company, Johnson & Johnson, McDonald’s and American Express. Additional funding is provided by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, The Atlantic Philanthropies, Ford Foundation and the Pew Charitable Trusts. Support is also provided by The Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) and PBS.