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African American Lives

African American Lives
with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Title card from the first season
Genre Family history
Documentary Series
Written by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Directed by Leslie D. Farrell
Leslie Asako Gladsjo
Graham Judd
Jesse Sweet
Jack Youngelson
Presented by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Composer(s) Michael Bacon
Country of origin United States
Original language(s) English
No. of series 2
No. of episodes 9
Executive producer(s) Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
William R. Grant
Peter W. Kunhardt
Producer(s) Leslie D. Farrell
Leslie Asako Gladsjo
Graham Judd
Jesse Sweet
Jack Youngelson
Running time 55 minutes (roughly)
Production company(s) Kunhardt Productions
thirteen WNET
Inkwell Films
Original channel PBS
Original run February 1, 2006 – February 13, 2008
Followed by Faces of America

African American Lives is a PBS television miniseries hosted by historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr., focusing on African American genealogical research. The family histories of prominent African Americans are explored using traditional genealogic techniques as well as genetic analysis.


  • African American Lives 1
  • African American Lives 2 2
  • Episodes 3
    • Series overview 3.1
    • African American Lives (2006) 3.2
    • Oprah's Roots: An African American Lives Special (2007) 3.3
    • African American Lives 2 (2008) 3.4
  • Criticism 4
  • In other media 5
  • See Also 6
  • References 7
  • External links 8

African American Lives

The first installment of the series aired in February of 2006. The series featured research into the ancestral lineages of eight prominent African American guests. By billing the guests were: music producer Quincy Jones, astronaut and physician Mae Jemison, comedian Chris Tucker, bishop T. D. Jakes, sociologist Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, actress Whoopi Goldberg, physician Ben Carson, and talk show host Oprah Winfrey. Writer, host, and executive producer of the series, Henry Louis Gates, also features his ancestral heritage on the show. The miniseries featured interviews with the parents and family members of guests including Winfrey's father, Vernon Winfrey. Geneticists Rick Kittles and Mark D. Shriver also make appearances.

The miniseries' four episodes were broadcast over two nights in two parts. On February 1st the first two episodes were broadcast as "Listening to our Past; The Promise of Freedom". The following week, on February 8th, the third and forth episodes aired as, "Searching for Our Names; Beyond the Middle Passage".[1] Re-runs of the series as individual episodes were broadcast following the joint premier both nights.[1] The miniseries was sponsored by Coca-Cola and Procter & Gamble who both produced commercials honoring African American heritage for use in the series.[2]

African American Lives 2

African American Lives 2 premiered in February 2008, again hosted by Gates. This second set of episodes traced the ancestry of performers Tina Turner, Tom Joyner, Chris Rock, Don Cheadle, theologian Peter Gomes, athlete Jackie Joyner-Kersee, poet Maya Angelou, Bliss Broyard (the daughter of writer Anatole Broyard), and publisher Linda Johnson Rice (the daughter of publisher John H. Johnson.) In addition to the more publicly known guests, Kathleen Henderson, a college administrator, was selected from more than 2,000 applicants to have her family history researched and to have DNA testing. The show continued the genealogical research into Gates's ancestry, which was found to be more than half European, including at least one male ancestor who fought in the American Revolution. Gates gave a speech when he was inducted into the Sons of the American Revolution. The four episodes of this miniseries are "The Road Home", "A Way Out of No Way", "We Come From People", and "The Past Is Another Country".


Series overview

Season Episodes Originally aired
First aired Last aired
1 4 February 1, 2006 (2006-02-01) February 8, 2006 (2006-02-08)
Special 1 January 24, 2007 (2007-01-24)[3][4] N/A
2 4 February 6, 2008 (2008-02-06) February 13, 2008 (2008-02-13)

African American Lives (2006)

No. in
No. in
Title Directed by Edited by Original air date[1]
1 1 "Listening to our Past" Jesse Sweet Eric Davies
Michael Weingrad
February 1, 2006 (2006-02-01)
Featured Guests

Family interviews in the episode include Winfrey's father, Vernon Winfrey, at his barbershop and home near Cleveland Park in brush, it was the first piece of land ever owned by his family. In Austin, Texas, bishop Jakes talks with his uncle Hoover Jakes about his grandfather's mysterious premature death surrounded by other unidentified family members. Quincy Jones also talks about his upbringing and family.[2]
2 2 "The Promise of Freedom" Leslie Asako Gladsjo Joanna Kiernan
Geeta Grandbhir
February 1, 2006 (2006-02-01)
Featured Guests
  • Whoopi Goldberg primary
  • Ben Carson primary
  • Oprah Winfrey primary

In this episode we find Gates looking for answers about the unknown father of his great-great grandmother's many children and in doing so finds unexpected answers. Gates' father and aunt make appearances, again, as well as Gate's cousin, John Gates, who helps him to find records at the Allegany County court house. During the end credits we see highlights of a Gates' family gathering. Meanwhile Goldberg learns of an attempt of her ancestors' to own land only a few years after gaining freedom. Ben Carson's mother, Sonya Copeland, with her brothers Eddie and John Copeland, sit down to look through old family photos and tell stories for the series. In his sit-down with Gates, Carson discovers a heart warming tale of reunion in his genealogical past. In keeping with the episode's theme of ancestors lives immediately after finding freedom, Oprah Winfrey discovers her family's long ties to education. Also featured in the episode is Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, who learns more information about her grandfather's profession with the historic Utica Normal and Industrial Institute.[6]

Consulted Professionals
  • Jane Ailes genealogist
  • Ira Berlin historian
  • Joel Buchanan archivist
  • Shirley Hopkins-Davis educator
  • James Horton historian
  • Rick Kittles geneticist
  • Joe Knetsch land historian
  • Susan O'Donovan historian
  • Jim Powell, Jr. archivist
  • Leslie Rowland historian
3 3 "Searching for Our Names" Leslie D. Farrell Merril Stern
Kathryn Moore
February 8, 2006 (2006-02-08)
4 4 "Beyond the Middle Passage" Graham Judd Kate Hirson
Stefan Knerrich
February 8, 2006 (2006-02-08)

Oprah's Roots: An African American Lives Special (2007)

No. in
No. in
Title Original air date
5 1 "Oprah's Roots" January 24, 2007 (2007-01-24)[3][4]
A special episode consisting entirely of footage from Oprah Winfrey's original interview for African America Lives' first series.

African American Lives 2 (2008)

No. in
No. in
Title Original air date[1]
6 1 "The Road Home" February 6, 2008 (2008-02-06)
7 2 "A Way Out of No Way" February 6, 2008 (2008-02-06)
8 3 "We Come From People" February 13, 2008 (2008-02-13)
9 4 "The Past Is Another Country" February 13, 2008 (2008-02-13)


Due in part to a centuries-old history within the United States, historical experiences pre- and post-slavery, and migrations throughout North America, the majority of contemporary African Americans possess varying degrees of admixture with European ancestry. Many believe that a majority of African Americans also have Native American ancestry, but according to this show, it may be much less frequent.[7][8]

With the help of geneticists, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. put African American ancestry in these terms:

  • 58 percent of African Americans have at least 12.5 percent European ancestry (equivalent of one great-grandparent);
  • 19.6 percent of African Americans have at least 25 percent European ancestry (equivalent of one grandparent);
  • 1 percent of African Americans have at least 50 percent European ancestry (equivalent of one parent); and
  • 5 percent of African Americans have at least 12.5 percent Native American ancestry (equivalent to one great-grandparent).[9]

Critics suggest that the program failed to fully acknowledge to the audience, or inform guests, that not all ancestry may show up in the tests.[10][11] The genetic tests done on direct paternal or maternal line evaluate only a few ancestors among many. Ancestral information markers (AIM) must also be done to form a more complete picture of a person's ancestry.[10] For instance, MtDNA testing is only of direct maternal ancestors. Unless other ancestry is evaluated, a person may miss a paternal line's connection to Europe. This gives a false impression that the person has little heritage of another ethnic group. AIM markers are not as clearly defined for all populations as suggested, and depend on data still being accumulated. Historic populations migrated, which also influences results.[10] Particularly, critics note that genetic analysis is incomplete related to Native Americans, and new genetic markers for these populations may be identified.[10][11]

In other media

Gates has written an associated book, In Search of Our Roots: How 19 Extraordinary African Americans Reclaimed Their Past, which was published in early 2009.

See Also


  1. ^ a b c d "African American Lives Episodes".  
  2. ^ a b """Recording of original broadcast of Episode One: "Searching for Our Names.  
  3. ^ a b "oprah's roots (commercial) [day, month, and time slot of special premier]".  
  4. ^ a b "Finding Your Roots - About [year of special premier]".  
  5. ^ "winfreys barbershop and beauty shop".  
  6. ^ """Recording of original broadcast of Episode Two: "The Promise of Freedom.  
  7. ^ Estimating African American Admixture Proportions by Use of Population-Specific Alleles
  8. ^ Population structure of Y chromosome SNP haplogroups in the United States and forensic implications for constructing Y chromosome STR databases
  9. ^ Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. In Search of Our Roots: How 19 Extraordinary African Americans Reclaimed Their Past, New York: Crown Publishing, 2009, pp.20-21.
  10. ^ a b c d Duster, Troy (2008). "Deep Roots and Tangled Branches". Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved 2008-10-02. 
  11. ^ a b "Genetic Ancestral Testing Cannot Deliver On Its Promise, Study Warns". ScienceDaily. 20 October 2007. Retrieved 2008-10-02. 

External links

  • Series 1 at
  • Series 2 at
  • Series 1 at the Internet Movie Database
  • Series 2 at the Internet Movie Database
  • Afrocentrifugal Force: Looking Blackward With Henry Louis Gates Jr., Village Voice, Joy Press, 24 January 2006
  • Lloyd, Robert. "The roots of black America - Maya Angelou and Don Cheadle are among the personages who trace their lineage this time around", Los Angeles Times, 6 February 2008 (second series review)
  • Hochschild, Adam. "35 Million Ways to Be Black", Mother Jones, 14 March 2007
  • NPR interview with Henry Louis Gates
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