Review: African-American Lives

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Once upon a time, a man named Malcolm X used to try to shake so-called Negroes out of the doldrums by asking, “What was your name? And where did it go? Where did you lose it? Who took it? And where is your history?� Malcolm’s aim was to interest black people in their past in a positive fashion in order to feel proud rather than shame or embarrassment about the stigma of slavery.

Most African-Americans still know precious little of their ancestral lineage. Generally, they can trace their roots back to around the end of slavery, at which point they hit a dead end. By design, that sinister system of exploitation divorced its victims from any connection to their family trees by deliberately destroying black family structure.
Legally considered property instead of human, slaves were treated like beasts of burden and forced to mate indiscriminately at the whim of their masters, ala thoroughbred horses or prize cattle. And because offspring were often sold at auction to the highest bidder, this means that the average African-American family tree is a hopelessly-tangled mess. A familiar refrain in the black community is to claim to be partially of European or Cherokee extraction, though this could rarely be substantiated, since Indians are pretty much extinct and probably the last thing a white person is going to admit is being descended from slave owners who slept with his chattel. For this reason, African-American Lives turned-out to be a fascinating and very-revealing TV program.

Narrated by Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., this four-part PBS series follows the extraordinary efforts of nine notables to find their roots. Besides Gates, the others partaking in this serious search for self include talk show host Oprah Winfrey , televangelist Bishop T.D. Jakes, comedian Chris Tucker, neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson, Quincy Jones, astronaut Dr. Mae Jemison, Dr. Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot and Oscar-winning actress/comedienne Whoopi Goldberg.

While the entire show is excellent, segments 3 and 4 are not to be missed. Courtesy of DNA evidence, Gates is certainly surprised to learn that more of his ancestors came from Ireland and France than from Africa. By contrast, Bishop Jakes’ is enabled to pinpoint his forefathers’ point of departure from Africa. Upon his travel return, he is greeted by a long-lost relative with, “Welcome home!�

A visibly-moved Jakes responds, “You’re strangely familiar to me. I swear I know you, but I can’t remember where from.� As he explains the experience, “I can’t really describe what it was like for me to get off a plane and have somebody say ‘Welcome Home!’ and try to process it, and ask myself, ‘Is this true? Is this home?’ It‘s like a set of twins who were separated at birth and raised in two different parts of the world meeting for the first time. And for the first time in my life, I wondered what I would have been, had my ancestors not been enslaved.�

Others are equally eloquent and emotional during the revelation of their sub-Saharan roots, particularly Oprah, Quincy, Chris and Ben. Whoopi, by comparison, is relatively blasé and has a tendency to joke, but then I don’t think it comes as a shock that she’s not really Jewish. Some subjects who figured they had Native-American genes actually did, while some, to their amazement, didn’t. Most had European skeletons in their closet, but to varying degrees.

In sum, African-American Lives is an alternatively intimate and informative return-to-roots saga of nine outstanding individuals made possible through an unprecedented combination of DNA, genealogy and oral tradition.

Note: African-American Lives Parts 1 and 2 debuted on PBS on February 1st from 9 to 11PM EST before being rebroadcast on February 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 7th (check local listings for times in your area). Parts 3 and 4 will first air on February 8th from 9 to 11PM EST and be rebroadcast on February 9th and 10th (again, check local listings).


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