Television Review | 'Faces of America'
Genealogy for a Nation of Immigrants
Published: February 9, 2010
It takes a long time and considerable patience to get to that surprise denouement of “Faces of America,” a four-part PBS series, beginning on Wednesday, about family roots by the Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. And even with charming celebrities — Meryl Streep, Mike Nichols and Queen Noor of Jordan are among the 12 whose genealogy is explored almost back to Paleolithic times — the telling can at times be a little wearisome.
But that is perhaps fitting for the subject: watching this solemn, painstaking examination of immigrants’ roots is a little like trying to pry juicy family stories from an elderly aunt at Thanksgiving dinner: There are some tedious detours and false starts, but the unexpected details and touching sidebars are worth the effort.
Mr. Gates, the film’s narrator and writer, put a huge effort into this project, which is obviously dear to his heart. The director of the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard, Mr. Gates is a founder of the genealogy Web site AfricanDNA.com, and the editor in chief of The Root (theroot.com), a site on African-American news, culture and genealogy. He has also done two previous series about African-American genealogy for PBS.
Some may wonder whether heritage and ethnicity really matter anymore in a society that fancies itself postracial, but Mr. Gates has his recent “beer summit” experience as evidence to the contrary. It was while returning from a trip to China last summer to research Mr. Ma’s ancestry that Mr. Gates was handcuffed after breaking into his own house in Cambridge, Mass. (The arresting officer said Mr. Gates had been uncooperative and said he would speak to “your mama.” That sounded like a slur but could also have been name-dropping, though Mr. Gates later told the New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd that he hadn’t mentioned Yo-Yo Ma in the altercation.)
At the time of the arrest, Mr. Gates was outraged, convinced that he was suspected of burglary only because he was black. Turns out, he isn’t even so black; in the film he reveals that like many African-Americans, he has white ancestors, and more European roots than African.
The writers Malcolm Gladwell, Elizabeth Alexander and Louise Erdrich are interviewed. So are the chef Mario Batali, television’s Dr. Mehmet Oz and the figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi. Ms. Streep’s background is less exotic — but more exalted — than most. On one side of her family her roots go back to founding fathers and a Quaker who left his church rather than cease agitating for independence from the British.
“I know it should make me feel even more important than I already am,” she says self-mockingly.
The comedian Stephen Colbert, raised Roman Catholic in an Irish immigrant family, is surprised to learn that some of his ancestors were Lutheran, or, as he puts it, “heretics.” He is not shocked to learn that he has no African or Asian traces in his DNA, and is of 100 percent European ancestry: “I am the inescapable black hole of white people.”
Mr. Gladwell, whose mother is Jamaican, is a bit chagrined to discover that one of his Jamaican ancestors was a free colored woman who was also a slave owner.
There are all kinds of genetic surprises, though none are truly shocking: Mr. Nichols is related, not so distantly, to Albert Einstein, just as his mother used to claim. He says that he is astounded that “the thing you’ve been bragging on, thinking you’re a liar, is true.”
What is more surprising is how little some people know about their own histories. Queen Noor, who was born Lisa Najeeb Halaby into a family of Syrian Christian immigrants, says she was the only one in her successful, assimilated family to take a real interest in its Arab roots. But she didn’t know that her grandfather Najeeb, a first-generation immigrant, was buried in Brooklyn. Mr. Gates takes her to visit the gravestone for the first time. Queen Noor, who converted to Islam when she married King Hussein of Jordan in 1978, prays at the site.
Her ignorance about her own roots is as telling about the willful amnesia that clouds many immigrants’ assimilation process as anything else she reveals. But Mr. Gates doesn’t ask questions, he answers them.
He tells Ms. Yamaguchi, whose parents were born in California internment camps during World War II, that her grandfather enlisted in the 100th Infantry Division and fought in Europe throughout the war, the only Japanese-American in his unit. She didn’t know he was a war hero and tears up when Mr. Gates shows her a New York Times clip from the period, a news article about the promotion to lieutenant of a nisei, the term used to describe American-born children of Japanese immigrants.
Some celebrities, like Mr. Batali and Mr. Ma, turn surprisingly emotional about remote ancestors, but one refuses to look too closely into ancient roots. Ms. Erdrich, a novelist (“Love Medicine”) and chronicler of American Indian life, declines to have her genome sequenced and decoded, possibly for fear that DNA results would complicate her claim to Chippewa ancestry. She tells Mr. Gates that her relatives said that it was their DNA too, and not hers alone to share with the world.
Ms. Longoria, who is Mexican-American, is not afraid to look at her pie chart and discover that while she is 70 percent European, she is also 27 percent Asian (and 3 percent African). When told that she has a genetic tie to Yo-Yo Ma, she jokes, “He’s Mexican?”
A little like people who claim to have lived past lives, almost everybody in the group seems to have a drop of blue blood: Ms. Alexander, who, like Mr. Gates, turns out to be more European than African, is descended from King John of England. (It may be that Dorothy Parker really was Marie of Romania — at least partly.)
“Faces of America” has moments of pomposity. But America is, after all, a nation of immigrants, and these kinds of stories have a fascination all their own.