Thursday, February 14, 2008

Awesome Show About African American History

My husband and I had just turned off the DVD player from our nightly viewing of The Tick and caught a few minutes of African American Lives 2 on PBS. Well, we were totally hooked and spent the next two hours watching it, despite plans for an early bedtime.

It traces the family lines of 16 people, including Maya Angelou, Chris Rock, Tina Turner, Morgan Freeman and Peter Gomes (one of my favorite religious writers) plus the show's host, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. In addition to looking into old records, they do a DNA test and are able to tell people what their racial percentages are! That was pretty surprising, I can tell you.

Gates, who considers himself black and grew up black, ended up being 50 percent European! He was pretty shocked. Turns out, he's related to some Irish king. There's a great scene where he goes to Ireland, meets some Irish people and introduces himself as this king's relative and then - how's this for a stereotype - the next scene is him in an Irish pub, drinking ale with the locals. It was awesome.

There was also this segment on how African Americans tend to think they have Native American ancestors, but in fact, only a small percentage do. Tina Turner just knew she was Native American, but it turns out no. Not even a little bit. The same with Morgan Freeman - who noted the Choctaws in Oklahoma were going to be upset when they learned he'd misrepresented himself. As it turned out, the features they attributed to being Native American were, you guessed it, European.

Which makes me wonder about the traits white people attribute to Native American ancestry.

There was also an interesting bit about indentured white women who had children by black (and, they assume, slave) men. That's a story you never hear about - but it turns out, that was the situation in Gates' family. (I think it was Gates; they skipped around a lot.) And they'd always figured the woman was ... you guessed it ... Native American.

They were able to tell several people which one or two tribes they would've decided from, as well. Experts helped Gates actually narrow down to about seven ships his African ancestor may have been on for the middle passage.

I'd love to have some of the DNA work they discussed in the series. Apparently, there have been lots of country-specific DNA studies that make it possibly to really pinpoint people's genetic origins now. Fascinating stuff.

We were in tears during some of the stories and it was just so powerful, watching these people learn about their past through slave records and DNA.

I'd definitely recommend this series. There's also a teacher's resource on the site.

This site says it's sister company,, was used in the show.

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