Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Faces of America

Have you been watching Professor Henry Louis Gates' most recent PBS special, Faces of America? If you haven't, don't worry it's not too late to tune in. I've been hearing about this program for awhile, but only caught last night's episode by chance, after flipping through the channels while folding laundry. (I find watching TV while folding laundry makes the folding go faster.)

Boy am I glad I turned off American Idol. In Faces of America, Gates, uncovers the family history of 12 influential Americans in order to show just how varied a country we are, as well as to show how our personal histories make up American history. Here's a description of the program from the PBS website.

"What made America? What makes us? These two questions are at the heart of the new PBS series Faces of America with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. The Harvard scholar turns to the latest tools of genealogy and genetics to explore the family histories of 12 renowned Americans — professor and poet Elizabeth Alexander, chef Mario Batali, comedian Stephen Colbert, novelist Louise Erdrich, journalist Malcolm Gladwell, actress Eva Longoria, musician Yo-Yo Ma, director Mike Nichols, Her Majesty Queen Noor, television host/heart surgeon Dr. Mehmet Oz, actress Meryl Streep, and figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi."

I was riveted throughout the entire one-hour episode last night and then thrilled to discover it comes on again tonight. In fact, it runs through March 3. Check your local listing for times in your area. You can also go to the website to see extended interviews with the profile subjects and research your own family history.

The thing that really struck me as I watched last night, was how common it was for the profile subjects to not know too much about their own family history. I thought it was only Black Americans who couldn't or didn't have access to the highest branches of their family tree. But after watching Meryl Streep, Kristi Yamaguchi and Mike Nichols admit that they'd never known and in some cases never even wondered about their ancestors, I felt a little bit better about my own situation and my general lack of knowledge about my past. Maybe it's an American thing that our histories begin with our immediate families. It is the American gift of reinvention, perhaps.

What about you? Do you know where you come from? Has it been important in shaping your identity?

I'm listening.



Anisah said...

Sounds like a good program. I think many Americans don't care where they come from. It's not important in this culture as it is in many others. Plus there's so many people that are here who originated in other countries (aside from the white Europeans of course), it's a melting pot.


Danger Panda said...

Thank you for the reminder. I saw this series advertised and wanted to watch it, but forgot all about it. I checked the local guide and found an episode airing last night, so was able to jump in! Yes, I love this stuff. Of course, I'm sort of obsessive about family history, so it's right up my alley.

LT said...

I think you're right in that many Americans just don't care. It's what makes us American I suppose.

You're welcome. Now I somehow missed it last night. Grrr...

JBH said...

First, let me comment that I totally watch TV while folding my laundry, too!

Second, I am SO putting the airtimes in my I can tune in!

Third, as an adoptee, you KNOW I'm constantly thinking about where I came from. And, surprisingly, the little bits I do know HAVE shaped who I've become. But I still want to know more.

M. Rigmaiden said...

You have a very interesting blog so I was moved to comment. I have traced my family history to six generations before me on three sides. The other sides terminate a bit more abruptly. And sadly, I only know about my European and some Native American ancestry specifically. My Great Grandmother said she knew where our African ancestors came from but she only knew the native name for the place and not the Anglisized name, and of course this name was forgotten over the years.

As DNA analysis gets better in time, I hope to find out more. I might point out that I am the oldest child and my other siblings don't seem to be as interested in the family history; it might be a birth order thing.

nyc/caribbean ragazza said...

I want to know more about my family. I'm a first generation American and my Caribbean cousins seem to know more about their history.

I can go back a few generations on my paternal side. Maternal not much at all.

My parents (who moved back after retiring) live on the same street as my paternal great grandfather did.

Given my dad is 80 my great grandfather must have been alive during slavery.

All my dad knows is he had a house up the street and used to work on ships. So does that mean my great-great grandfather came from Africa? I have no idea how to find out.