TV & RA­DIO

All the must-see/hear pro­grammes

Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine - - CONTENTS -

As pre­sen­ter and pro­ducer Pro­fes­sor Henry Louis Gates Jr, aka ‘Skip’, tells it, laugh­ing cheer­fully as he re­lates the anec­dote, one of the key mo­ments in the cre­ation of Find­ing Your Roots was when a lady of Rus­sian-Jewish her­itage wrote to him and ac­cused him of be­ing “a big fat racist”. That’s be­cause his African Amer­i­can Lives had, as the ti­tle sug­gests, con­cen­trated on African-Amer­i­cans, in­clud­ing the likes of Oprah Win­frey, Mor­gan Free­man and the late Maya An­gelou.

Point­ing out she had no idea of where pre­cisely her great-grand­par­ents came from, Gates’ cor­re­spon­dent chal­lenged him to “ex­pand your fo­cus”. He re­calls: “I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, can I do that?’”

Gates, who’s also a se­nior aca­demic at Har­vard, de­cided to call up a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of one of his shows’ spon­sors, Coca-Cola, be­cause he was wor­ried this would be “out­side of my brand – quote, unquote”. He con­tin­ues: “There was a long pause, in fact I thought the cell phone had dropped, and fi­nally a very quiet voice said, ‘Well, Skip, there are a lot more white peo­ple drink­ing Coca-Cola than black peo­ple…’”

The brand was duly ex­panded, and this month the sec­ond se­ries of Find­ing Your Roots, a show that mixes ge­nealog­i­cal re­search with gath­er­ing its sub­jects’ DNA, gets its UK pre­miere. Each show fea­tures three public fig­ures and is themed, so that, for ex­am­ple, there are pro­grammes on those with strong Greek, Bri­tish and Jewish in­flu­ences in their fam­ily trees. Those tak­ing part in­clude nov­el­ist Stephen King, ac­tors Sally Field, Tina Fey and Ben Af­fleck, ten­nis cham­pion Bil­lie Jean King and, the first per­son ever to ap­pear who “did not de­fine them­selves as a nat­u­ralised Amer­i­can”, Sting.

“Ev­ery­one from Oprah to Sting I would think, has their fam­ily tree framed” says Gates, mus­ing on the show’s pop­u­lar­ity. “They also ask for copies for their fam­ily. The good thing is th­ese an­ces­tors have been lost and they will never be lost again. There’s a say­ing in Africa that as long as your name is spo­ken by your descen­dents, you’ll never truly be dead – and that’s what ge­neal­ogy is.”

Skip Gates says he wants sug­ges­tions from Brits about which Brits should ap­pear on the show. Email him at: gates@har­vard.edu Jonathan Wright

Pro­fes­sor Henry Louis Gates Jnr with ac­tor Sally Field

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