'African American Lives'

Leslie D. Farrell and Dr. Peter Forster
Series producer and Series Participant
Friday, February 10, 2006; 11:00 AM

The four-part PBS series "African American Lives" uses genealogy, oral history, family stories and DNA analysis to trace lineage through American history and back to Africa. Starting with the oral histories of the individuals' families and drawing on photographs, film clips, music and early personal records, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., W.E.B. Du Bois professor of the Humanities and chair of African and African American Studies at Harvard University, begins to trace their family trees back through the 20th century.

Series producer Leslie D. Farrell and series participant Dr. Peter Forster were online Friday, Feb. 10, at 11 a.m. ET to examine the tracing of human DNA across the world and to field your questions and comments about the PBS film. Forster can also take questions about using DNA for genealogical, archaeological and forensic casework.

Series participants include Dr. Ben Carson, Whoopi Goldberg, Bishop T.D. Jakes, Dr. Mae Jemison, Quincy Jones, Dr. Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, Chris Tucker and Oprah Winfrey. Professor Gates hosts the series. "AFRICAN AMERICAN LIVES" aired on PBS Wednesdays, February 1-8 at 9 p.m. ET (Check Local Listings).

About the Guests

Farrell is the founder of Feral Entertainment, Inc., and has produced, directed and written for more than 15 years. Farrell's television programs have aired on HBO, PBS, several commercial networks and cable outlets in the U.S. and Europe. Recently, she produced, directed and wrote the final episode for the PBS series Slavery and the Making of America, and produced a six-part dramatic miniseries directed by Spike Lee, titled "Miracle's Boys," for MTV's network targeting adolescents, The N. Farrell received an Emmy for the HBO films "Sports on the Silver Screen" and a Peabody for "Journey of the African American Athlete." In addition, she has developed, created and supervised the production of a range of documentary and entertainment television series, including "Vice and Sex2K" for MTV, "Journeys in Black" for BET, and "Bravo Profiles" for Bravo.

A geneticist appearing in "African American Lives," Forster is a Fellow and Praelector at New Hall College, University of Cambridge in England. His work traces and dates the prehistoric spread of human DNA across the world, and he has used DNA for genealogical, archaeological and forensic casework.

The transcript follows.


Leslie D. Farrell: Hello everyone,

I'm Leslie Farrell the Senior Producer for "African American Lives" which premiered on PBS over the last two Wednesdays. I'm glad to be here to answer your questions regarding the series.


SW - Waterfront, Washington, D.C.: If someone would like to have DNA analysis done to determine where their ancestors come from, what resources are available? I understand that there are many types of tests to get, but how do you know which one(s) to do? What is a reasonable fee? How do you know if a particular DNA analysis company is reputable? Additionally, as the series showed, groups of people may have migrated, and a historical background would be helpful to really get a sense of from where you come. Certainly an amateur historian could do all of this research themselves, but are there any businesses/research projects that will do both the DNA analysis AND historical research for you?

Leslie D. Farrell: If someone would like to have their DNA tested for genealogical purposes, there are three main tests that can be taken. (1) Add Mixture - this test measures the amount of each of the four main groups of people based on original migration patterns. That means the test looks for genetic anomolies that determine whether or not someone has Indo-European, Sub-Saharan African, East Asian or Native American ancestry. We used a company that anyone can contact on-line and the test costs about $219. (2) then someone can test their mothers line (the mitochondrial dna) or (3) their father's line the Y chromosone. These two tests look for direct ancestry and determine origins. There are couple of companies that do these tests such as as well as a free study being conducted by boston university


Staten Island, N.Y.: The genetic results surprised many of the guests, showing ancestors not even hinted at in the paper trail, including subject who found they had Asian background. Consindering that the paper trails often led back to slavery with no indication of Asian influence, and the historians surmised that the Asian ancestoral lines may have come in after slavery, does that put the paper trail in question? After all people don't always tell the truth about parentage.

Leslie D. Farrell: For the purposes of television (production schedule etc.) we were not able to follow every line in our guests ancestry. We had to make choices so that we could have a variety of stories. If we had made an exhaustive search of their family trees, I suppose we would have run across those Asian ancestors. As for whether or not the Asian ancestors were pre or post Civil War, either scenario is possible.


Silver Spring, Md.: Very cool show! I'm not African American, but I'd love to learn about my genetic heritage, too. Do you have any suggestions as to companies that offer such DNA tracing services?

Leslie D. Farrell: Glad to hear about your interest. Yes, everyone should have a chance to trace their ancestry. we have discovered some very interesting DNA results from our non-African American production team members. Try for genealogy, for add-mixture testing


Crystal City, Va.: I haven't seen the program, but it sounds interesting. Where did the DNA get examined? Was it at a university lab, or some place commercial?

Leslie D. Farrell: We used four different labs - three in the US and one in England in order to cross check results.


Washington, D.C.: Hi, not a question but a comment. Thank you for producing an amazing program! The topics discussed in the film have been dinner conversation for our family for the past week. My 8 year old daughter has been calling her grandparents and other relatives for family history. She wants to know where 'exactly' she comes from and what makes her who she is. Thank you again for terrific television. This caliber of film is precisely why we need PBS.

Leslie D. Farrell: Thank you so very much for your kind words. I am thrilled that the series awakened an interest in your daughter - that is exactly what we had hoped for. Just a note: now that I've finished the series my sister and I are going to do our family tree as well. Thanks again.


SW, Washington, D.C.: Can you talk about why African American celebrities were interviewed and tested for this show? I'm sure there are many non-famous people who have just as (or even more) interesting stories of their families' migrations and histories.

Leslie D. Farrell: That is a good question. Yes, everyday people have great stories too. We decided to use accomplished people as a way to encourage viewership. It's unfortunate, but in today's world if we said "hey come watch a show on DNA about an unknown person" not many people would tune in. But if we say, "tune in and see where Oprah's ancestors did or originated from" we could get the word out. It's that simple. What we hope is that now that people know, everyone will trace their family trees to discover the incredible stories in their own backyard.


Washington, D.C.: Messrs. Farrell and Forster, as someone from the West Indies, can DNA analysis be done to trace our lineage as well? It would have been quite interesting if Dr. Gates had selected someone other than African American to take part in his series. There are people from the African dispora everywhere in the United States.

Leslie D. Farrell: Yes, you can trace your ancestry as well. When we concieved of the series we specifically wanted to contain the guests to those born in the United States. If things catch on there could be another series where we look at people from the Diaspora who were born outside of the US.


New Yor, N.Y.: How much would the Y-chromsome, the mitochondrial DNA and the admixture test cost an individual?

Leslie D. Farrell: The Y-chromosome & the mitochondrial tests run between $300 - $500 each depending upon the lab. The admixture is about $220.


Arlington, Va.: I watched on Wednesday night and I loved it. I learned so much from the documentary. Is this type of genetic testing available to anyone? I remember perhaps about a year ago, I read that there was this study being done and scientists were collecting genetic data from a number of people and participants could find out where their ancestors are from (in the similar way they showd in the doc.) I wanted my brother to participate (so I could find out about my mom and my dad). Do you know about this? Can people still participate?

Leslie D. Farrell: I think you might be talking about the study they are conducting at Boston University. You can find out on-line by going to the BU site and searching for dna study.


Silver Spring, Md.: Have Africans in some of the countries that had people taken as slaves maintained some type of record or stories passed on by relatives which say which family members were taken as slaves? So when you identify a specific country/region and tribe the elders can pick up the link.

Leslie D. Farrell: It is unfortunately not that simple. But, as you may have seen in the film that when we took Chris Tucker to Angola, they have save volumes upon volumes of slave records indication, in many cases, the true African name of the person taken into slavery. But trying to match that name with an Ancestor on this side of the ocean would be extremely difficult for many reasons, not the least of which is that by the time the person reached our shores, their African name was taken away from them. The best you can hope for is an ethnic group to identify with.


Raleigh, N.C.: Where in raleigh can I go to get the DNA done and what is the cost. I enjoyed the program and for my family (both sides) I feel that we should know. I have no children so I feel that my nieces and nephews need to know what our family and other African American had to go thru because they feel that everything is a give me and not a earn it. I feel they need to understand why you have to work so hard to obtain the things you want because so many people before us had to struggle to just maintain their life (meaning keeping themselves alive and not being killed) let alone for the everyday needs (such as food and shelter and clothing)just trying to live was hard and these kids today just do not get it. I just want them to understand to respect the elderly and listen to the stories they have to tell about the past because they do help in our future.

Dr. Peter Forster: DNA tests cost from 100 dollars to several hundred dollars, and are offered by several different organizations and companies. These price differences are partly explained by different levels of quality.

In fact I am also involved in DNA testing so allow me to exemplify our own service:

At, we determine nearly 1000 positions in your mitochondrial DNA to find out where and to which tribes your mother's line traces to, within Africa and within the rest of the world. We also provide some general information on the individuals whom you match most closely in Africa and/or elsewhere. The test costs 270 dollars and you get results typically within 3 weeks after we receive your sample.


Tampa, Fla.: I loved the show! What an interesting way to make us see history connected to our own lives today. Do you anticipate these geneaology methods becoming more available to the general public?

Leslie D. Farrell: Thank you for your support. Absolutely, genealogy is one of the fastest growing hobbies in the country and now we know that anyone can do it regardless of your ethnic background. We used to do our genealogical research. They have the largest on-line repository of human records - they have records on more than 3 billion people. so they are a good place to start. A one-year subscription is $179.


Baton Rouge, La.: As you know it is very difficult to get past very far in tracing african american ancestory. My mother has been unsuccessful in tracing her family beyond 188o's or so. Where can we look to get some help?

Leslie D. Farrell: - for $179 you get a one-year subscription and a lot of help. good luck!


Washington, D.C.: Didn't see the show, but there was another PBS show about the Lemba tribe in Africa which claimes to be a "Lost Tribe of Israel". They did testing and found similariaties indicating that they did share genetic characteristics with jews.

Did anything like that come up in your show? Will it be rerun again?

Leslie D. Farrell: The show will be rerun so check your local listings. And yes, Dr. Gates discovered that he has a distant female ancestor who was an Askenazi (sp?) Jew.


Rochester, N.Y.: Hello - I thought the coolest 'lesson' from the series was that - one's 'heritage' or 'cultural identity' is based not on 'race' (a notion that was well debunked in by the Penn State professor), but rather one's own and others' perceptions.

Leslie D. Farrell: Absolutely. Thank you for showing us that we got our message across.


Philadelphia, Pa.: How accurate can DNA testing show? Can it tell ancestry to specific tribes or areas of Africa, or are most of the results only indicating which large portions of Africa are from which people are descended?

Leslie D. Farrell: That's a good question. The science is somewhat new and being refined all the time. Alot of that depends upon the number of people that the scientists have in there data base. So some people can be traced directly to a group and some it is less clear. As the scientists gather more and more samples from Africans to put in their data bases, it will make closers matches all the more possible.


Leslie D. Farrell: I will have to sign off now. Thank you to everyone who wrote in for your support and interest in our series. It was a wonderful experience for each of us on the production team and our greatest wish is that everyone who wants to gets to have a family tree of their own.

Best to all,

Leslie Farrell


Washington, D.C.: Dr. Forster,

Have you found that laymen and women on the streets have an understanding of what DNA is and how DNA testing works? I've heard that in America at least DNA test results in court cases are misunderstood by juries, etc.

Dr. Peter Forster: The main contact I have with laymen/women is not through the courts but through our ancestry testing service "rootsforreal". Nearly without exception, we find that these people are highly knowledgeable about population genetics and what the testing can and cannot do for them. My impression is that most problems in the courts are related to criticism of sample handling procedures, DNA sequencing errors and statistical interpretations, rather than with any general ignorance of genetics.


Columbia, Md.: Thoroughly enjoyed this series. How much would it be for a private person to hire a geneologist and to have DNA testing done?

Dr. Peter Forster: Seems everyone here is interested in DNA testing rather than in the research background! Ah well. So here goes. As an example, I previously mentioned our own DNA service "rootsforreal", so let me now give you a fuller answer by explaining some general points when choosing a DNA test.

1. If you are interested in possible admixture in yourself (what percentage African DNA do I have?), you should look for companies offering autosomal tests. This kind of test tells you something about yourself but will not pinpoint any particular individual in your ancestry.

2. If you are interested in tracing your lineage to individual ancestors, then Y chromosome tests and mtDNA (mitochondrial DNA) tests are the first choice. These types of tests can take you right back to locations in Africa, and can identify living individuals in Africa who have very similar DNA to your own. But it must be remembered that tracing mtDNA or the Y is like tracing a surname: only a small part of your ancestry is revealed.

Costs: For as little as 100 dollars you can get a basic DNA test, but this will not be much use for individual ancestry and may only very generally tell you the evolutionary branch to which your DNA belongs. And I know of cases where clients had to wait for many months to get their result. At the other end, for hundreds of dollars you can get detailed mtDNA and Y tests with which you can resolve questions on the ancestral origins of family members. But there again, there are large differences in prices and quality of service.

Conclusion: shop carefully and look out for personal recommendations.


Philadelphia, Pa.: What are the costs associated with having the DNA tests conducted that were in the documentary?

Dr. Peter Forster: The 9 tests we carried out for the African American Lives program would have cost 270 dollars if we had done them individually at However, we were given the basic result already generated in a different laboratory. So all we had to do was to run the DNA sequence through our global database mtradius and identify the best genetic matches worldwide, and their tribal, linguistic and geographical locations. This kind of follow-up analysis, or "Second Opinion" as we call it, comes at about 40 dollars.


Alexandria, Va.: I have heard conflicting reports on where the first humans originated from. Has there been research use to confirm human origin?

Dr. Peter Forster: Most genetcists and fossil experts now agree that humans originated in Africa some 150-20,000 years ago. The first geneticist to come to this conclusion was Allan Wilson in his seminal publcation in the journal Nature in 1987. It is this paper which popularised the concept of mitochondrial Eve.


Bronx, N.Y.: I am from the West Indies and want to find where from Africa my ancestors came from how do I find this out? Do you ever find the roots of blacks in the Caribbean region?

Dr. Peter Forster: You will probably be interested to see the documentary "Motherland - A Genetic Journey", a BBC film on the DNA ancestry of African Caribbeans, first broadcast in 2003.


Marietta, GA: 1. Which chromosone tells the story Y or X?

I know you did the fathers so wondered what could be learned from the mothers or is their a value in an X to linkage?

2. I read somewhere that 1/3 of white Americans have black detectable blood- True?

3. The washing out of African American bloodline takes how many generations?

Dr. Peter Forster: All chromosomes have the potential to tell us something about our ancestors. But at present the Y and the mtDNA are the most popular parts of our genome which are studied by prehistorians. The reason is that we can use them to separate sex-specific events in the past. For example, the colonisation of a new continent, several tens of thousands of years ago, would have involved both men and women, whereas a more recent invading army may have consisted only of men. We can thus look at modern mtDNA and Y to distinguish between such events.


Dr. Peter Forster: Time to say goodbye now. For anyone interested in the science behind the DNA testing, you might like to take a look at my university Web site which contains free literature downloads:

Best wishes.

Peter Forster


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