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Henry Louis Gates, Jr. on 'Faces of America' and the Beer Summit

by Joel Keller, posted Feb 9th 2010 2:03PM
Henry Louis Gates, Jr. at the premiere of 'Faces of America'While I was in Pasadena for the TCAs, I got a chance to have a very interesting talk with Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. He was at the press tour to promote his new PBS series 'Faces of America,' which debuts on Wednesday, February 10.

In the four-part follow-up to his 'African-American Lives' series, Gates traces the lineages of a number of celebrity guests via the use of both old-fashioned digging -- documents, genealogical investigations -- and cutting-edge genome research. Some of the guests include Eva Longoria, Yo Yo Ma, Stephen Colbert, Malcolm Gladwell, Dr. Oz and Meryl Streep.

Professor Gates and I talked mostly about what he found surprising about his research, and what guests were most surprised by their lineages. Of course, I also asked him about the aftermath of the "beer summit" with President Obama and James Crowley, the Cambridge police officer who arrested him for breaking into his own house last summer. You'd be surprised what the officer gave Professor Gates as a keepsake of the incident.

On the panel, you talk about how deep you go into tracing the lineage of the guests that participated. What was your sales pitch to the folks that you had come on your show to try to convince them to kind of go into it?
You know what, all I said for each one: "Maybe you've heard of 'African-American Lives,'" -- which they all had -- "I'd like to do your family tree." And they all said yes right away. Eva Longoria, Meryl (Streep), I mean, they all (said yes) right away.

Some people I knew, like YoYo Ma. He lives in Harvard Square, I know him. So I can just ask him. I go, "Yo, can I do it?" We call him Yo. We call him Yo Mama. He goes, "I would be honored." Where other people I wrote, and then they would, I'd get a call from their assistant, and they all said yeah. Nobody said no.

Did any of the guests have any kind of notion of like what was in their lineage before?
Mostly mistaken notions. They'd heard rumors, but they didn't know specifics. Like Meryl thought she was Dutch. She's German. Streep is Streeb, and she's descended from Johan Jacob Streeb, who was born in 1607 in Germany. And the Wilkinson line also, that's her 8th grade grandfather, and the Wilkinson line goes back to England, same period.

Where do the misconceptions come from usually?
You know, what's the parlor game when I whisper something to you, and you whisper it to her, and she whispers it... telephone, yeah. It's historical, genealogical telephone. The way I heard it, Uncle Willy said we were descended from the king of England, you know. George Washington was Abraham Lincoln's daddy, you know. And everybody has those myths.

Black people have the Cherokee Indian princess myth, that we're descended from some Cherokee princess, that we're part Native American. Very few African-Americans have any Native American ancestry. Every people have series of myths that are shared. Most people don't know, I mean, Joel, how far back do you know?

I know about as far back as my great-grandparents.
That's it.

I think one set came from England, another set came from like Austria-Hungary. It's like kind of mixed German.. .mixed like Eastern European, German, Polish heritage.
And how old are you?

So you said great-grandparents, right? The average person knows the name of their great-grandparents. Maybe.

Even Stephen Colbert didn't quite know his lineage? Because he's talked a little bit about it in the past.
He had no idea. Heart attack. He just knew he was a super Irish patriot. But he didn't know the names of the people or... You know, we talked about one of his ancestors Honora Manning. Gets off the boat the day of the draft riots in New York. He had no idea. And he had no idea about the German line. Wait til you see his face.

See, what we do, though, is make stories. I love stories. One of our guests in one of the other series had had, as a gift, a genealogist give her her family tree. Except all the genealogist did was give her all those documents. Most people don't read them. I mean, for the average person. I mean, you should see the documents. It's like huge, raw documents, and you have to read them carefully like a deed. The deed tells stories. They do.

In the fourth part, you were discussing this at the end of the panel, you delve into their genetics. What made you and the producers decide to go really that far into it? At what point was it possible to really go that far into your lineage through your genetics and the genome patterns?
It was the format we adopted when we started the 'African-American Lives' series. And I did that because I wanted to find out where in Africa I was from. And the only way to find that out for any African-American really is through their DNA.

So that's the M.O. that we worked out for all the series. You know, we do the family tree back til the paper trail disappears, and then we do their DNA. But for this series, we did new stuff because the technology keeps changing.

As Dr. George Church, professor at Harvard Medical School said, what we did in this series, we couldn't have even done when we did 'African-American Lives,' because it didn't exist. Like sequencing the human genome... I mean, you could do it, but it cost 300 grand. A year ago it cost 300 grand. 6 months ago it cost 100 grand. Now, retail, $49,500. But they expect it to come down to $5000 very soon. And then everybody'll have it done.

Where do you see the technology going?

I don't know, man.

When they gave me my genome, they gave me an iMac that has nothing on it but my genome and my father's. It's huge. I mean, and it's just, I use an analogy in the the narration, of (the series): When I was in China when I was filming YoYo Ma's ancestral cemetery, one of the oldest private libraries in the world is in Ningbao. And I'm in this library, and looking at all these beautiful volumes, and I can't read one word. In terms of reading the human genome, we're just beyond see Dick, see Jane. You know? That's amazing. But one day we'll be able to read all those books. And understand them.

What was the most surprising discovery, either for yourself or most of your guests?
Malcolm Gladwell being descended from black people who owned slaves in Jamaica. He was shocked. He was totally shocked. I handed him her will bequeathing eleven slaves to her son. That was a shock. Good shock. Oh, Mike Nichols being cousins with Albert Einstein. He said, "Son of a bitch!"

YoYo Ma, we found a letter written by the emperor of China appointing YoYo Ma's 20th great-grandfather to the head of the imperial examination office. That's pretty heavy. Just that it exists.

What does tracing back these lineages help to tell us about how people have come to be at this point in American history? How do you want to tie that in to how we are kind of melted together in the U.S.?
This is a series about the triumph of American democracy, measured through genealogy and genetics, that we are a product of the greatest experiment in the history of the migration of human beings, to produce a country purely out of migrants.

I mean, even the Native Americans were migrants, they were just migrants 16,000 years ago. But recent immigrants since the 17th century, we're all immigrants. I'm an immigrant, you know, Irish and black, you are what you said, Polish.

Look at Meryl. The Hubert line comes from Switzerland, the Wilkinson line comes from England, and the Streep line comes from Germany, all at the same time. And they all end up sleeping together, sooner or later.

What's the hardest line you've found to either document, or at least try to get a hold of even in the genetic part of the study?
The Muslim world. Dr. Oz, Syrian and the Turkish.

Why is it so difficult?
Records were destroyed. And there's very little paper trail. So for both of them, we could take them back to pre-Civil War. But it's like black people descended from slaves, because there's no paper trail. It's very hard to get back to the 1700's for an African-American, unless their family was freed early on, as was the case with me and two of the other guests on 'African-American Lives' 1 and 2.

Can you now take that and take the genome part of it, the genetics, and can you fill the blanks in with that, or do you still need more?
No, they're parallel texts. I was thinking that, and I'm going to put this in the book actually, I have an Irish haplogroup on my father's side. It's called the Oneal haplotype, haplogroup... same thing. It goes back to one man, who's the king of Ireland. He screwed everybody in the kingdom, right? His name is Niall of the 9 Hostages, who lived about 450 AD.

They don't even know if he was mythic or if he was real, but eight percent of all men in Ireland, including me over here, share this same haplotype. Norse ancestors we can document on paper, goes back to 435 AD. So there's a case where it's imaginable back to that, you know, recent period, or that distant period depending on your point of view.

In those two cases, it could overlap. But otherwise, I cannot get from Niall of the 9 Hostages, the progenitor of this haplogroup, from the 5th century AD up to my great-great-grandfather. It's just a big blank space.

And there's no way to fill that in at this point?
No. You have to find paper.

So the genetics and the paper have to kind of mesh and interact and corroborate?
Parallel. Two stories. They're two stories about the same individuals.

Let me ask you one or two really quick questions about what's been going on with you the last year. I'm not going to get into specifics of what happened at Cambridge, but since the "beer summit," and the publicity it's gotten, how has that helped or hurt your studies, or helped or hurt what you've been teaching in your classes or your career?
Once I started doing documentaries for television, I became more recognizable on the street. Well, now my street recognition is through the roof. And people go "Hey, how's the beer? Was it cold?" And they mean well. People are very friendly and very kind.

It was rough last summer. There were a lot of death threats. There were a lot of bomb threats on my house. But all that's disappeared. I walk around without any security, and I take public transportation and nobody bothers me. But people speak to me.

And I'm hoping that this publicity, this notoriety will translate into people actually watching the show and learning about the history of migration in the United States. It was very painful to go through, but has it hurt me? No. It's just made me more recognizable. And I only know that because wherever I walk, somebody stops me and shakes my hand.

To use the overused phrase "teachable moment," is this the type of thing where you've actually been able to say, hey, this is something that we can kind of stop and look at and learn from?
I haven't quite figured out what I want to do with the story. Do I want to make a documentary, do I want to make a feature film, do I want to write a book, I haven't quite figured that out. I mean, if you Google that incident, for two weeks it was on the front page of every newspaper in the world at least once in that two week period. In the world! That's amazing. It's ridiculous. But it was a down time in the news cycle. Barack Obama was involved... It was like a Harvard professor, Irish cop, I mean, it was the stuff of melodrama.

If you were to make a book or a movie, would you collaborate with the officer, or the Cambridge officer?
Oh yeah. I get emails from him, we've had drinks, he gave me the handcuffs. He gave me the handcuffs that he arrested me with as a gift. So you know, he's a very good man. I think he just had a bad day.

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Helmut Scheiss

Barack "Hussein" Obama can apologize to people that don't give a shit to us, but he can't say sorry to the Cambridge police for doing their job. Log-rolling?

February 09 2010 at 6:32 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Helmut Scheiss's comment
Bob Loblaw

Look everyone, it's subtle racism with the President's middle name time! No apology! Cue fake outrage!

February 09 2010 at 7:21 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

An excellent piece on a man who, judging from the last line of the interview, still doesn't "get it."

No amount of good will (even great PBS documentaries) can erase the damage he did last year.

February 09 2010 at 2:20 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
4 replies to Jim's comment

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