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Henry Louis Gates Jr.: A Life Spent Tracing Roots

This interview was originally broadcast on May 8, 2012.

For more than 30 years, Henry Louis Gates Jr. has been an influential public intellectual with a distinct style, who makes complex academic concepts accessible to a wider audience.

Gates — known widely as "Skip" — may be best known for his research tracing the family and genetic history of famous African-Americans. "There are just so many stories that are buried on family trees," Gates tells host Neal Conan. "My goal is to get everybody in America to do their family tree."

With a number of PBS programs and books, he has traced the roots of prominent Americans — including Oprah Winfrey, Yo-Yo Ma and Stephen Colbert — and uncovered surprises about many families, including his own.

He says his goal in this work is twofold: "First, to show that we're all immigrants, and secondly, that we're all mixed — that we all have been intermarrying, or interrelated sexually from the dawn of human history."

His most influential writings on race, politics and culture appear in a new volume, The Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Reader. Gates, the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor at Harvard University, discusses the new compilation and how his fascination with genealogy began.


Interview Highlights

On the roots of his fascination with genetics

"I remember exactly the day, because it was the day that we buried my father's father, Edward St. Lawrence Gates. It was July 3, 1960. ... I was standing there holding my daddy's hand and looking at his father. And now, my grandfather was so white ... that we called him Casper behind his back ...

"My grandfather looked like he had been coated with alabaster and sprinkled with baby powder. And I was trying to figure out how someone who looks like me could be connected to someone who looked so Caucasian ...

"And the next day, it was the Fourth of July, and we went to the colored picnic, as we would have called it back then, in Piedmont, W.Va. ... And that night, I interviewed my mother and father about ... what I would later discover was called their genealogy, or their family tree. And I connected myself to them and to their parents, their grandparents and great-grandparents, and I never lost this fascination — indeed, obsession — with genealogy."

On his inspiration to help others find their roots

"You can say I had a severe case of Roots envy. I wanted to be like Alex Haley, and I wanted to be able to ... do my family tree back to the slave ship and then reverse the Middle Passage, as I like to put it, and find the tribe or ethnic group that I was from in Africa.

"And it was a young black geneticist here in Washington, named Dr. Rick Kittles, who is the owner and CEO of a company now called africanancestry.com, who made this whole fantasy of mine come true. ... He contacted me in the year 2000, said that ... he could do Alex Haley one better. He could do Alex Haley in a test tube ...

"He flew up to Harvard Square and came and took a huge vial of blood ... and told me where I was from in Africa. It turned out not to be where I was from, but it was ... a beginning. And Rick Kittles really launched me on this quest to help other people find their roots."

On the significance of family trees

"All historians generalize from particulars. And often, if you look at a historian's footnotes, the number of examples of specific cases is very, very small. As we do our family trees, we add specificity to the raw data from which historians can generalize.

"So when you do your family tree and Margaret Cho does hers, and ... Wanda Sykes and John Legend ... we're adding to the database that scholars can then draw from to generalize about the complexity of the American experience. And that's the contribution that family trees make to broader scholarship."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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