© 2024
NPR for Northern Colorado
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Henry Louis Gates reveals celebrities' family history in 'Finding Your Roots'

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Over the course of his many years hosting history and genealogy shows on PBS, scholar and filmmaker Henry Louis Gates Jr. has guided dozens of people through emotional deep dives into their family histories, unearthed with the help of DNA and a team of expert researchers. Many of those profiled have said that the discoveries changed their view of themselves forever. But an episode in his latest series, "Finding Your Roots," now in its ninth season, may have produced one of the most profound self-image-altering surprises yet.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FINDING YOUR ROOTS")

HENRY LOUIS GATES JR: Joe's DNA does not match him with anyone related to Emilio Manganiello, the man whom he always assumed to be his father's father. I called Joe before our interview to let him convey the news to his father in private and see if he wanted to withdraw from the series. As shocking as this information was to us, I discovered that Joe's father was not entirely surprised.

MARTIN: And Henry Louis Gates Jr. Is with us now to tell us more. Professor Gates, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us once again.

GATES: Oh, thanks for having me on the program. I love your show.

MARTIN: Well, thank you for that. So this week's episode features former pro football player Tony Gonzalez and actor Joe Manganiello. And it turns out that Joe on his mother's side had a mystery that he'd been struggling with, that he'd been looking for some help with. What was that?

GATES: Yes. Well, it's a fascinating story. Joe's maternal great-grandmother's name was Rose Darakjian, and she was a survivor of the Armenian genocide. And Rose ended up in a refugee camp where she ultimately met a German soldier with whom she had a daughter. Now, we know nothing about the nature of the relationship between Rose and this German soldier who fathered Joe's grandmother, Sandra. This German soldier is Joe's great-grandfather, and Joe came to us hoping to learn his identity. His name was Karl Wilhelm Beutinger. In the process of solving this mystery, man, we uncovered a much bigger mystery.

MARTIN: In the past, you have had to let people know that there were things in their family histories that they might not be proud of, like the fact that they are descended from enslavers.

GATES: That's right.

MARTIN: The source of their family wealth might be enslavement. Now, you've had a number of situations like that, and some of the guests, subjects were not happy about that. And - but this week's episode has a different spin on that arc. You found out that Joe's paternal grandfather is not who he thinks he is or was. And I'm just going to play that clip. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FINDING YOUR ROOTS")

GATES: Joe, these are some of the documents we gathered for the three Cutler (ph) brothers. Now, would you please read what they all say about the three men's race?

JOE MANGANIELLO: OK. Negro. White. Negro. White. Of African descent. White.

GATES: Joe, it seemed to us that the Cutlers may have been light-skinned African American men.

MANGANIELLO: Well, that's interesting.

GATES: That means that you would, under the one-drop rule, be an African American. Boy, now...

MANGANIELLO: That's really interesting.

GATES: It is really interesting.

MARTIN: So, professor Gates, is this the first time that this has happened in that somebody's racial identity is not what they think it is?

GATES: One of the first times. I think the first time was with Ty Burrell. And Ty Burrell learned that his great-great-grandmother was a Black woman.

MARTIN: Ty Burrell being - and I think many people would know him from "Modern Family."

GATES: Yes.

MARTIN: Yeah. So there it is.

GATES: And Carly Simon, Carly's mother was 20% Black. Carly was 10% Black. And Carly's grandmother, therefore, was 40% Black (laughter).

MARTIN: Well, you know, it's funny - I mean, the reason - I think I'm on firm ground here when I say that I think a lot of African Americans throughout history have speculated about who might have African ancestry. And you can understand why. Look, given the racial history of this country, it probably shouldn't be surprising...

GATES: That's right.

MARTIN: ...How many people do. But has learning something like this, how does - how do you think it changes your view of yourself?

GATES: Well, in Joe's case, he's just so proud of his African American ancestors and I'll explain why. Joe's DNA revealed that he was 7% sub-Saharan African. That is roughly the equivalent of having one great-great-grandparent of full African descent. But it turns out when we then trace his Black ancestry back, we ended up with an amazing ancestor who is his fifth great-grandfather. His name is Plato Turner. Plato Turner was likely born in Africa in the 1740s, and he's well known because he performed heroically as a patriot in the American Revolution. And there is a monument to him.

MARTIN: That's remarkable. There's a monument to him? Where?

GATES: A monument to him in Plymouth, a monument...

MARTIN: Plymouth, Mass.

GATES: In Plymouth, Mass. And so Joe is all over this ancestor. I mean, he would love to be made member of the Sons of the American Revolution.

MARTIN: And good for him. So - but has anybody - look. I'm not going to ask you who, but has anybody ever dropped out because of a revelation like this?

GATES: Well, no one so far has ever said no, but according to the ethicist, that's what I have to ask. So everybody so far has said yes. Then I have to say, in Joe's case, your grandmother, obviously, according to your DNA, had an affair with a Black man and he - that Black man is your father's father. And then I have to do that privately, because it's not "The Jerry Springer Show." You know, my job is not to embarrass anybody or cause somebody having a heart attack. His father couldn't exactly learn this sitting in his living room with his friends - right? - watching "Finding Your Roots."

MARTIN: Right. Agreed. Agreed.

GATES: And so - because there are psychological implications. This is very traumatic for people. And so then I said to him...

MARTIN: No matter what it is, not just the racial aspect of it, but just the knowledge that the relationships were not necessarily what you thought they were.

GATES: Right, after all these years.

MARTIN: I want to go back to one of the things that you said to Joe when you were walking through this information with him is that you said, look, under the one-drop rule, you would be African American. You are. We are speaking at a moment where there's just so much heat around American history and the way it is taught. What I'm asking you is, what difference do you think it might make to our dialogue around some of these issues if people were more acquainted with the realities?

GATES: I believe that the - and I think about this a lot - the popularity of "Finding Your Roots" is the fact that it reminds us every week that we are a nation of immigrants and that immigration is part of the country's DNA. But the second is that the DNA results show that there is no such thing as racial purity, that no matter what the law was in the daytime, when nighttime came, people were violating those rules against intermixing and falling in love and having relationships across what we used to call the color line.

MARTIN: Why do you think that there is such - there's so much animosity around the teaching of history then? Why do you think that is?

GATES: Well, I think that, you know, the metaphor that is commonly used is that slavery is America's original sin, and that there are a lot of people who just don't want to admit that the wealth of the United States was built on the free labor of people of African descent. And those African American ancestors were not only exploited economically through their labor. There was a great deal of sexual exploitation as well. The average African American is 24% European, or 24% white. That is through the results of the commercial DNA company.

So we have to be secure enough to say, yes, this was our original sin. Yes, the wealth of our country was built on the backs of enslaved people whose labor was stolen from them. But teaching that is not intended to make anybody feel bad. And, in fact, I have been teaching since I was 26 years old. I'm 72. I've never heard of a professor in any African American history class who's tried to embarrass a white student over the fact of slavery. We're just teaching it because it's a fact, and we can only deal with it by being honest about the facts.

MARTIN: A new episode of "Finding Your Roots" comes out on Tuesday, February 7. Henry Louis Gates Jr., thank you so much for talking to us about this today.

GATES: Oh, thank you. It was a wonderful interview. I'll be on your show anytime. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.