A new series on PBS digs deep into America’s history of racism by mapping the genealogies of famous African Americans—including Chris Rock, Tina Turner, Don Cheadle, Maya Angelou, and Morgan Freeman. Through analysis of DNA and historical documents—including slave ship records and wills—”African American Lives 2″ recreates the family trees of 12 people and reveals stories that are both poignant and shocking.
A review of the series in The New York Times recounts:
[Comedian Chris] Rock can be seen wiping away a tear after learning that his great-great-grandfather fought in the Civil War, served in the South Carolina Legislature, and died owning dozens of acres of land. He never knew any of that history, Mr. Rock says in the program. He recounts growing up in a working-class Brooklyn neighborhood and being bused to a white school where he was bullied.
“Until I lucked into a comedy club at, you know, age 20, just on a whim, I assumed I would pick up things for white people for the rest of my life,” Mr. Rock says. “If I’d known this, it would have taken away the inevitability that I was going to be nothing.”
Maya Angelou learns for the first time that her black great-grandmother was impregnated at 17 by her 50-year-old white former master. Morgan Freeman is told similarly troubling information about his own great-great-grandparents.
The four-part series—which Harvard professor and series host Henry Louis Gates Jr. refers to as “roots in a test tube”—is the sequel to a 2006 PBS series that mapped the genealogies of Oprah Winfrey, Chris Tucker, Quincy Jones and Whoopi Goldberg.
Both series call into question the concept of race, and what it means to be black in America today.
“It’s a complicated message to get across,” one of the series guests says in an interview with The New York Times. “We can find the geographic origins of our ancestors, but it doesn’t mean that race is a biological destiny.”