There is no shortage of reality TV shows that promote voyeurism into the sometimes vapid and predictable lives of the rich and famous; however, more and more of these reality shows are focusing on skills, talents, and especially passions, such as cooking, dancing, and singing. One of the biggest reality TV trends to take hold is genealogy. While the vast majority of the people showcased on these ancestry programs are of celebrity status, the ultimate message is that the world of genealogy is open to everyone – no matter your race, creed, color, notoriety, or paycheck – and that’s what is so enticing to today’s audiences.
It has been 35 years since Alex Haley’s acclaimed novel Roots: The Saga of an American Family made its debut as a miniseries on ABC. The show’s finale, which remains the third highest-rated television program in U.S. history, ignited an interest among Americans, especially those of African descent, to map their own lineage. In fact, the Iron Chef of Genealogy in the world of reality TV is Henry Louis Gates Jr., a Harvard professor, historian, and researcher, who just happens to be an American of African descent (AmAf). Professor Gates’ recipe for successful television viewing is a concoction of ingredients that delivers a delicious and satisfying product that delights family researchers’ tastes.
Now that decades have passed since Roots aired, television – this time reality TV – is once again playing a major role in spurring people of all colors and backgrounds to trace their family history. Henry Gates brings his skills, knowledge, and passion for lineage research to the forefront, not only for AmAfs, but for all American citizens (AmEurs, AmAsians, AmLats, et al) in this melting pot nation of ours. In addition to writing and presenting great genealogy programming, Professor Gates is also the Editor-in-Chief of The Root, as well as co-founder of AfricanDNA.com, which powers the genealogy section of The Root. Owned by the Washington Post Company, The Root is an online source of news and commentary from an Am-Af perspective.
In 2006 and again in 2008 Professor Gates produced African American Lives 1 and African American Lives 2, respectively. The PBS miniseries traced the African and slave roots of celebrities (Oprah Winfrey, Whoopi Goldberg, Quincy Jones, and others) using traditional genealogy research methods, as well as DNA analyses provided by African Ancestry, which was formed in 2002 by black scientist Dr. Rick Kittles and black entrepreneur Gina Paige. African Ancestry has established an African database that is considered the largest and most comprehensive of its kind today, offering lineages from 30 African countries and 200 ethnic groups. The company uses DNA to pinpoint the African country of origin of its clients.
Professor Gates works with two other DNA companies specializing in tracing African ancestry, including 23andMe (the name refers to the 23 pairs of chromosomes we all have) and Family Tree DNA. Of the more than 100,000 AmAFs tested by 23andME, not one of the participants was found to be 100% African. As discussed in a recent National Public Radio (NPR) interview, Professor Gates, who is referred to as African American or black, is actually 57% white. According to Gates, 35% of all black American males cannot trace their Y-DNA (tests a male along his direct paternal line) roots back to Africa, because their direct paternal lineage includes a white man (quite often a slave owner) and a black female slave, as is the case with Professor Gates, and additionally First Lady Michelle Obama (as reported by the New York Times). The search would have to be done through mitochondrial DNA, which tests a man or woman along their direct maternal line.
After the phenomenal success of African American Lives 1 and 2, Professor Gates launched Faces of America With Henry Louis Gates Jr. on PBS in 2010. A year later, PBS aired Henry Louis Gates’ Black in Latin America, which drives home the fact that of the 12.5 million slaves that were brought over from Africa between the 1500s and 1800s, less that 4% were brought to America; the other 11 million-plus ended up in the Caribbean and Latin America. Most AmAfs are descendants of approximately 400,000 black Africans brought to American in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Faces of America mapped the genealogy of a dozen American celebrities of varying ethnic and religious backgrounds – including poet Elizabeth Alexander, journalist Malcolm Gladwell, as well as actress Meryl Streep, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and surgeon Mehmet Oz (aka Dr. Oz). Once again, genealogy and genetics played a part in finding the lineage profiles of the participants.
Clearly Professor Gates has struck a chord with Americans who are interested in tracking their ancestry. A year after African American Lives 1 aired in 2006, Gates published Finding Oprah’s Roots, Finding Your Own. In 2008 CNN launched its own series Black in America, and it continues to fuel the interests of family researchers by hosting an informational website. Canada jumped on the bandwagon to satiate the Canucks’ appetite for family history research by producing its own genealogy series Ancestors in the Attic.
Thanks to the impact of genealogy reality TV, online genealogy research websites have benefitted from the trend. Ancestry.com, considered the largest and most well known of the online websites, welcomed 800,000 new members between 2009 and 2011, which translates to an 80% increase in subscribers. New online research sites have popped up along the way, such as RecordClick.com, which specializes in smaller research projects, making it more affordable and accessible to non-celebrity family researchers.
In Spring 2012 Professor Gates’ 12th series Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates Jr. premiered on PBS. This time Gates doubled the number of his celebrity profiles, inviting Samuel L. Jackson, Branford Marsalis, and Condoleeza Rice, as well as Martha Stewart, Kevin Bacon, Margaret Cho, and Linda Chavez, et al, to take a journey back in time to visit their ancestors. The individual episodes of the 10-part series can be viewed on the Finding Your Roots website.
PBS and CNN don’t have a monopoly on genealogy programming. NBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? (WDYTYA) is in its third season. WDYTYA has taken the likes of Reba McEntire, Blair Underwood, Spike Lee, Rob Lowe, and other celebrities on a journey of self-discovery to trace their family ancestry.
Rob Lowe’s episode was filmed in part in Washington, D.C. The first stop on the actor’s journey was the DAR Library to find out information on his Revolutionary War ancestor. Located in the headquarters of the Daughters of the American Revolution, the DAR Library is one of the three largest genealogical research centers in the U.S., along with the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, and the National Archives (also in D.C.). Lowe and an independent genealogist used the online DAR Genealogical Research System (GRS). If you missed the episode, you can view the full episode on the WDYTYA website.
Not content to settle for just network and cable TV programs, I scoured the Internet for other genealogy-related fare and stumbled onto The Generations Project, a terrific 38-episode series that is produced by BYUtv under the aegis of Brigham Young University Broadcasting. This series deals with mainstream Americans (of various racial and ethnic origins), delving into the deeper aspects of why a family member may decide to take the journey to research ancestry in the first place. Each episode chronicles the genealogy journeyman step by step, offering helpful research hints and resources, as well as imparting the individual’s story, along the way. While The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a sponsoring affiliate, the episodes do not attempt to proselytize viewers to the Mormon faith. Episodes of The Generations Project are available through satellite and cable providers, and can be viewed via Internet streaming on the BYUTV website.
Don’t stop with the above-mentioned programs; take a moment to search your locations of interest to see if local historical societies may have video programs. The Larimer County (Colorado) Genealogical Society (LCGS), which was started by members of the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1974, now produces a series for its Genealogy Quest TV. An expert in the field of genealogy and family research is showcased each month, discussing the latest methods in locating and research ancestors. The LCGS has undertaken projects to index local records, including those for cemeteries, land, marriage, birth, death, and divorce, etc.
You have heard it said that each journey begins with the first step. In this day-and-age of reality TV, your journey may very well begin on your couch. Whether you are an avid family history sleuth looking for new research resources, a person needing to address painful memories of a family member, or someone who loves delving into the lives of celebrities, there’s a genealogy reality TV show for your tastes. Even if you think you have no interest in genealogy, beware . . . one of these reality TV episodes may just spur you to take your own journey back in time to understand better who you are today.
For help with your ancestry research, speak to a professional genealogist today.