Finding Your Roots With Henry Louis Gates Jr.

Historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr. believes in the power of knowing.

In his opinion, “You need to know where you come from to know where you’re going, to know who you are.” That’s why it’s no surprise that the literary scholar, journalist and cultural critic is entering his third season as host of PBS’s Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

The 10-week series, which looks at the genealogy of famous celebrities, unearths the family histories of influential people who helped shape America’s identity.

“It was like a gift from God,” says Gates on the series’ origins. “I just got up in the middle of the night [one day].”

Through a team of genealogists, Gates helps celebrities determine the global origins of their family trees.

“My motto is, ‘Know thy ancestry. Know thy self.’ 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.”

In addition to revealing celebrities’ true ancestry, Gates also uses the show to debunk common myths in relation to DNA and African-American history.

“The other thing that may surprise you is that very few African-Americans have any Native American ancestry,” he says. “It’s a myth. We all think that we have direct Indian ancestry. The reason your ancestor had high cheek bones 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.”

Gates, who is of African-American and Irish descent, also said that most Blacks have less than 1 percent Native American in their DNA, and average around 24 percent European.

“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.”

Each season, Gates profiles 28-30 celebrities. Finding Your Roots, which had previously been known as African American Lives, originally focused on Black celebrity ancestry, but has since broadened its audience. Among those featured this season are Shonda Rhimes, Keenen Ivory Wayans and Bill O’Reilly.

“When I started this, I thought only Black people didn’t know about their ancestry,” said Gates. “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.”

And sometimes, what you discover isn’t necessarily 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. “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.”

Gates says that his main goal with the series is to show that regardless of one’s race, we are all fundamentally related. We’re more alike than we think.

“No matter what our phenotypical differences, no matter how apparently different you might look from Bill O’Reilly, you’re fundamentally the same. 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.”

“Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.” airs every Tuesday at 8/7c on PBS. Click here for local listings and check out the most recent episode here.