Finding your Roots

My wife and I have become fascinated by the PBS show called “Finding your Roots.” Historian Henry Louis Gates hosts three people of prominence and shares with them interesting things he discovers about their ancestry.

The show provides a rich and personal history lesson to the three guests and the audience. We have learned many things we did not know, especially when races and ethnicities intermingle or families flee bigotry, enslavement or persecution.

Here are a few of those learnings:

– every family has unusual circumstances or secrets that may not have been shared, as the information may have been embarassing, highly personal or even dangerous if others knew.

– there were some freed African-Americans living in areas of the South and more surprisingly, some of these freed African-Americans owned slaves.

– we knew of African-Americans that fought for the Union, but some fought for the Confederacy, and some of those fought for the Union after their City fell to the Union.

– Fascists and anti-Semites know no boundary. Some Jews escaped Poland from Polish anti-Semites long before they tried to escape the Nazis. Some escaped Russia for the same reason, then had to leave England to escape it there.

– it is not surprising for the guests to find different races and ethnicities in their background – the history is validated by DNA tests.

As examples of this last point, Bryant Gumbel found out he was about 10% European Jew. Suzanne Malveaux from CNN has multiple races mixed in, including Native American, French Quebec and sub-Saharian African. The comedian Fred Armisten found out his Japanese grandfather was actually Korean who fled persecution and was an acclaimed dancer in Japan. Larry David, who does a great Bernie Sanders impersonation, has DNA that makes him a distant relative of Sanders, which neither knew.

I encourage you to watch the show, even if you may not know the guests. Also, go on Ancestry.com and spend some time tracing your roots. It will suck you in, but do invest some time. History is fun, especially when it is yours.

18 thoughts on “Finding your Roots

  1. Good post. When people emigrated to the U.S. they sometimes hid their ancestry. It was easier to do years ago. Some Jews didn’t want to be known as Jews so gave just the name of the country they came from. German Jews became just Germans, etc. Some fair blacks in the south “crossed over the line” and changed their identity to white. DNA tests are now bringing all these things out. It’s a total surprise to some who don’t know their true ancestry. —- Suzanne

    • Suzanne, many thanks. Terrific comment. What my wife and I have noticed is companies using mixed race people to their advantage in marketing. Last year, I read about 15% of all marriages are mixed race. So, an educated guess is more than 15% of the people in commercials are mixed race. Even as I typed this, a mixed race couple appeared in a commercial. Keith

    • Hugh, I had a sense you may have seen the show. I used to watch a show called the “History Detectives,” but I don’t think they air it here. Keith

  2. Note to Readers: I have shared before that there are mysteries in both sides of our family. On my father’s side, his mother was raised by her Aunt beginning when her Aunt was 14. The only item I could glean from records was his mother was fathered by her Aunt’s older brother, but no mother was listed. This was around 1910 in South Georgia.

    So, there are two hypotheses. One is the Aunt was her mother and her older brother said he was the father to save face for her. The other is he fathered a child out of wedlock and the mother abandoned the child.

    I believe it is the former as this same Aunt also raised my father after his mother and father split up and each left town. It makes more sense that his Great Aunt was his grandmother. I did not learn of this mystery until after my father passed.

  3. Note to Readers: My wife’s father’s family has a few question marks, as well. His father and mother divorced and he took the last name of his step-father after she remarried. So, my wife’s maiden name is that of her step-father. The hard part is his real father had a very common German name and it is hard to trace.

  4. It is so common for children to be born out of wedlock and hidden in clever ways. My family is full of them.
    While my family all originated within the British Isles, it is well known that many Brits have bits of Viking, Norman and Anglo-Saxon heritage, especially in the North and Easter in Coast areas. Celtic heritage comes more in Ireland and Wales.

    Recent years have brought a more worldly diversity everywhere.

    All of us are mixed heritage and so it does rather make it meaningless if we try to say the races are pure….most are not and it rather begs the question of why we have such awful racist views in some members of society.

    • Colette, it is great to hear from you. Your observation is on point. Our family has that kind of mix as well with roots to the Normans, Scots and Irish. There is a great line from the Bill Murray comedy movie “Stripes,” where he said we are the mutts of the world. We have been kicked out of every country in the world. Keith

      • Indeed Keith. If we had the means to take our genetic trees back beyond neolithic times, we’d likely find that we are coming full circle. Our genetic heritage began with a Primitive form of the primate ‘homo erectus,’ spreading across the globe when land bridges were in greater effect. Rising seas and differing climates selected characteristics for survival that created the racial differences we see in modern humans, but modern travel, integration and population numbers are quickly integrating any differences (in geological time spans).
        We are indeed all ‘mutts.’

  5. Good post, Keith. Several years ago I did some research using Ancestry.com and found a picture of the grandmother (father’s side) that I had never met and never seen so much as a photo.

    • Jill, that is a treasure you found. Going through my mother’s things after she passed, we found pictures of my grandmother as a young woman. They were treasures. Our kids love to hear stories about their heritage. The other day, my middle son’s roommate told us back one of our old stories my son had shared that she enjoyed. Keith

      • Indeed so! My granddaughter, Natasha, is always so delighted to hear me retell memories of my childhood. As I grow older, and realizing my days are numbered, I have started writing down as much as I can remember … something to leave for her when I am no longer here to tell her in person.

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