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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: firstname.lastname@example.org Jonathan Wright
Professor Henry Louis Gates Jnr with actor Sally Field