Noted historian and Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. embarked in January on his eighth season of hosting “Finding Your Roots,” a series that sits down with notable names and takes them on voyages back in time. These aren’t just any voyages back in time though. Gates uses genealogists and DNA experts to find and examine historical records, and analyze genes to uncover whatever secrets they hold about the families of the guests. “Finding Your Roots” gives guests not just the names of their ancestors but in most cases, stories that bring the ancestors to life.
This season, the personal histories examined include Terry Crews, Regina King, Brittany Packnett Cunningham, Tony Danza, Kathryn Hahn, Anita Hill, Nathan Lane, John Leguizamo, Damon Lindelof, Mario Lopez, Leslie Odom Jr., the late André Leon Talley, Pamela Adlon, Erin Burnett, Amy Carlson, Melissa Villaseñor and Lena Waithe.
Season eight kicked off by sitting down with producer, writer, and director Lee Daniels, known for “The Butler,” “Empire,” and “Our Kind of People.” With Gates’ help, he uncovered the reasons behind some of the mysterious silences surrounding his forebears he had always noticed in childhood that no one ever had the courage to address. “The silence stops with me,” Daniels declared after finding out the scandalous details surrounding the mystery.
Rebecca Hall is an actress (“Resurrection”) and director (“Passing”) who was always told there was a great likelihood that there were Black people somewhere in her bloodline but had no proof. It was this assertion that led her to direct the film adaptation of the Harlem Renaissance classic, “Passing” (starring Andre Holland, Ruth Negga, Tessa Thompson) last year. Some things that Hall learns confirm what she always believed, and other revelations show that as many lies as truths may have been passed down in the family lore.
“Law and Order: SVU” actor Raul Esparza and world-renowned chef David Chang were guests on episode two. In their cases, their families fled their homelands for political reasons, Cuba and North Korea, respectively.
Esparza found out that his grandparents were in fact, not the first people in his family to come to America; his great-great grandmother had also left Cuba for America, several generations prior to his grandparents’ arrival, fleeing Castro.
“It’s exciting. It’s making me imagine a whole life I wasn’t aware was even happening back then,” stated Esparza, upon finding out.
Chang also had great curiosity about his ancestors’ homeland which he had never set foot upon and also found out that prior generations of his family had been to the United States. Chang’s great-grandfather had come to the U.S. as a teacher around the turn of the century, something it seems Chang’s own parents were unaware of. “I don’t have any words,” stated Chang, “I mean I have goosebumps!”
Distinguished law professor Anita Hill, who became famous in 1991 for accusing then U.S. Supreme Court Justice nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harrassment, is one of the guests on episode three. Also on episode three is Brittany Packnett Cunningham, a Black Lives Matter activist, member of President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, and cofounder of Campaign Zero, a non-profit that aims to eliminate police violence.
Packnett Cunningham came to “Finding Your Roots” with a definite family mystery that she wanted solved: the enigma of her paternal grandfather. “I literally have only heard one sentence uttered about him…I just want to know who he is,” she told Gates at the beginning of the program. Using DNA from Packnett Cunningham and her mother, they set about trying to solve the mystery. Not only did they find out her grandfather’s name, they found a photo of him, causing
Packnett Cunningham to tear up when she saw it. She also learned her paternal great-great-grandfather fought in the Civil War after having been freed in 1864. “I’m angry they had to fight for a freedom that belonged to them and I’m incredibly proud to know that I come from people who run toward the fight,” she stated.
Hill also wanted to find out who her grandparents were; in her case, on her mother’s side. They found out her grandparents were landowners, through the Homestead Act of 1862, an extraordinary feat for Black people. Stated Hill, “They did what it took, which had to be so very difficult, so this makes me feel so proud. They existed and grabbed this part of citizenship as a right.”
“Finding Your Roots” airs on PBS Tuesdays at 9 p.m.