April 29, 2011

Gates gets to the root of family life

Genealogist and historian Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. traced the origins of his own interest in genealogy at the annual George E. Kent Lecture in Rockefeller Chapel on Wednesday night.

Gates, who is director of the W.E.B. DuBois Institute of African and African American Research at Harvard University, discussed some of his research and reflected on his miniseries “African American Lives.”

Gates said that he first felt drawn to genealogy after his grandfather died, prompting him to later volunteere as a test subject for an organization tracing the ancestry of African Americans through DNA testing.

The new scientific possibilities of the program inspired Dr. Gates to pitch “African American Lives” to PBS. On the show, he offered prominent members of the African-American community like jazz musician Quincy Jones and talk-show host Oprah Winfrey the opportunity to discover their ancestors.

What most surprised Gates, he said, were the historical statistics he uncovered. Of the 12.5 million Africans who were shipped to the Americas from 1502 to 1856, only 450,000 came to the United States. The majority of slaves were directed to South America. Also, according to Gates’ research, the average African-American man is 77.6 percent African, 17.4 percent European, and 5 percent Native American.

The popularity and success of his miniseries has motivated Gates to take his research even further. He is currently designing a curriculum targeting inner-city schools. Students will research their own family trees, and hopefully feel personally invested and motivated about learning the science and history of their past. “After all,” Gates said, “your favorite subject is yourself.”

During the question and answer session, he was asked about how quickly this new curriculum would be implemented. The answer was tentative – another six months to complete it, then a few years of experimenting at different schools. If it is successful, Gates plans to publish a book and ideally begin introducing his ideas into the classroom.

Absent from the talk was any mention of Gates’ arrest in 2009, which drew national attention and even a Presidential “beer summit” after allegations of racial profiling began circulating. Gates was arrested while attempting to break into his home in Cambridge, MA.