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'Lives' Makes a Present of Black Americans' Past

Whoopi Goldberg talks with host Henry Louis Gates Jr. in PBS's
Whoopi Goldberg talks with host Henry Louis Gates Jr. in PBS's "African American Lives." (By Graham Judd)

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By Chip Crews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 1, 2006

"Who am I?"

Although that can be a question for your inner psychologist, the search for an answer can take other, equally telling directions. One of the most fascinating invokes the universal desire to connect with the past: Who were our ancestors, and where did we come from?

Nine extraordinary people receive touching, dramatic and unexpected answers to those questions in "African American Lives," a mostly absorbing new PBS documentary that airs tonight at 9 on Channels 22 and 26 (the four-hour show will conclude at the same time next Wednesday). The life stories of the subjects and their forebears are resonant and unforgettable.

The show was the subject of a spirited question-and-answer session at last month's Television Critics Association news conference in Pasadena, Calif., that featured appearances by the host of the program, Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr.; T.D. Jakes, pastor and chief executive of the Potter's House, a 30,000-member Texas church; astronaut Mae Jemison; and executive producer William R. Grant. Gates summed up at least some of the project's appeal when he said: "It's one thing to hear a lecture about [DNA]. It's another thing learning that if you swab yourself 20 times on each cheek, in three weeks somebody will send you back a card saying, 'Your ancestor came from Nigeria, and more specifically from the Ibo people.' "

The DNA science is astonishing, but most of the program's genealogical detective work is the kind that anyone with access to a library can attempt, and Gates wants his audience to know that. The production is divided into four hour-long segments, and the first, "Listening to Our Past," focuses on the subjects' childhood memories and on the 20th-century African American experience.

It was the time of the Great Migration: In 1900, American blacks were mostly poor, mostly Southern and mostly agrarian. By 1975, they had moved into every region and every profession, albeit not always in great numbers.

The program's other subjects are Ben Carson, head of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins Children's Center; actress-comedian Whoopi Goldberg; legendary music producer Quincy Jones; Harvard professor and author Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot; comedian Chris Tucker; and TV host Oprah Winfrey. Gates, having assembled the group, leads each of the others through an emotional and enlightening personal history course that he hopes will inspire young African Americans to search for their own roots and take a greater interest in science.

Several participants evoke the very different world they were born into. Winfrey recalls her Mississippi grandmother telling her, " 'What you want to do is grow up and get yourself some good white folks.' " Winfrey adds with satisfaction, "I regret that she didn't live to see that I did get some good white folks -- working for me."

Later, at age 6, she was taken to live with her mother in Milwaukee. Her mother boarded with a light-skinned black woman "who did not like colored people. . . . I was a nappy-headed colored child, and she would say it." Little Oprah had to sleep on the porch.

Jones speaks of what a rough place Chicago was to grow up in and remembers his mother, "a brilliant lady" who had attended Boston University years before, being taken to a mental hospital when he was 7. And later, Carson speaks of the inspiration he took from his mother, who dropped out of school after third grade, got married at 13 and ended up supporting her family by working as a domestic.

Gates said at the TV critics' session that he had little trouble assembling his eight subjects; only one person turned him down. Despite aggressive appeals from the audience, he refused to say who it was, offering only, "I have his two e-mails, one at 7:22 in the evening on a Friday night, and he said, 'I would be delighted.' Then at 7:28 he wrote back and said: 'I thought about it. I changed my mind. I don't want to know where I am from in Africa. I have too many cousins already.' "

One of the show's recurring themes is Gates's search for information about his great-great-grandmother, Jane Gates, who was born into slavery in 1819; her services were once rented out for $5 a year. Somehow, after the Civil War, she purchased a house in Cumberland, Md., an improbable achievement for a newly freed slave. His quest to learn where she got the money and who the white man was who fathered her children -- here a promising lead, there a dead end -- is emblematic of the genealogist's frustrations and rewards.


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