Monday, March 15, 2010

Faces of America

Many people are familiar with Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. because of his recent run-in with a police officer which later led to the "Beer Summit" with the president. Nevertheless, his real fame should lie in his incredible career as a Harvard professor, literary critic, film maker, and historian. His latest work is the PBS series Faces of America.

The general premise of this new show is to look into the genealogy and genetics of twelve famous Americans. Questions about personal history are first to appear, and it was quite interesting to watch Mario Batali, Kristie Yamaguchi, and Yo-Yo Ma learn more about their origins. However, where this story becomes truly fascinating is when questions of race and identity begin to come out. Both historical research and genetics bring several of these people up against the reality that they are not exactly who they thought they were.

For example, more than one of these figures, including Dr. Gates, discovers that the "race" which they most closely identify is not actually the majority of their genetic make-up. Some are happy about the discovery while others are clearly left somewhat bemused. It cannot be a comfortable feeling to discover that along with blood ties to the "victims" of American history, many of us are also descended from the perpetrators. This serves as a powerful reminder that history is rarely the clean "good vs. evil" battle that we sometimes think. You can watch the four episode series on the website linked above. I recommend it highly.

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