Faces Of America With Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Airs Sundays, July 29, August 5 & 26, Sept. 2, 2012 at 8 p.m. on KPBS TV
Originally published January 29, 2010 at 3:14 p.m., updated July 17, 2012 at 4:45 p.m.
What made America? What makes us? These two questions are at the heart of the PBS series FACES OF AMERICA WITH HENRY LOUIS GATES, JR. Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr. turns to the latest tools of genealogy and genetics to explore the family histories of 12 renowned Americans.
Trace Your Family History
Online databases make it easier than ever to trace your own family history, and DNA testing allows for the type of deep research conducted by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. These resources can help you get started.
Along the way, stories of displacement and homecoming, material success and dispossession, as well as assimilation and discrimination illuminate the American experience.
Among Gates’ guests are comedian Stephen Colbert; journalist Malcolm Gladwell; musician Yo-Yo Ma; director Mike Nichols; Queen Noor of Jordan; heart surgeon Mehmet Oz, M.D.; multi-award winning-actor Meryl Streep; and former Olympic champion figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi.
"Our American Stories" airs Sunday, July 29 at 8 p.m. - The first episode will explore the dynamic and shifting relationship America had with her new immigrants in the 20th century. World war tore apart families and sundered the fabric of many lives, but America beckoned and millions came.
Yet, America was an ambivalent host. At its best, a place of refuge and salvation, as for film director Mike Nichols whose entire family escaped Nazi Germany.
At its worst, a country that would imprison two generations of Japanese Americans, like the ancestors of Olympic gold medalist Kristi Yamaguchi.
Along the way, we'll discover the buoyant American optimism that shaped chance – as in a single encounter that changed musician Yo-Yo Ma's life forever – to pave the road to success.
"Becoming American" airs Sunday, August 5 at 8 p.m. - The second episode explores the many journeys to becoming American that defined the “Century of Immigration” (1820s-1924) and transformed the United States from a sleepy agrarian country into a booming industrial power.
Stephen Colbert’s Irish great-great-grandfather escaped poverty and religious oppression in Limerick and never looked back, whereas Mario Batali’s great-grandfather, who left the place where his family had lived for centuries, struggled to survive in the quartz mines of Montana.
Her Majesty Queen Noor’s Syrian great-grandfather quickly found his footing in New York’s first Arab American community, while Kristi Yamaguchi’s grandfather faced exclusionary laws and racially-defined barriers to citizenship for decades.
The obstacles, short-cuts, tragedies and successes encountered or created by the guests’ ancestors from around the world reveal the complexity of our shared history and identity as Americans.
"Making America" airs Sunday, August 26 at 8 p.m. - The third episode tells the story of the peopling of the New World, of how land came to define the settling and identity of America, and of how the guests’ ancestors were part of this history.
We discover descriptions of Meryl Streep’s eighth great-grandfather who fought in Metacom’s War, records of a land dispute in Spain that pushed Eva Longoria’s ancestors to leave for the New World, a treaty that Louise Erdrich’s Native American ancestor was forced to sign, and Yo-Yo Ma’s family genealogy in China, which gives insights into his identity he has longed for his whole life.
"Know Thyself" airs Sunday, September 2 at 8 p.m. - The final episode takes up the search for the guests' ancestries where the historical record leaves off and links their distinctive family histories to the broader history of "the family of man."
Combining the documented stories of some of the guests' last known ancestors with DNA evidence, the series travel backward through time to reveal both distant relatives and surprising shared ancestral connections.
Elizabeth Alexander learns that she is a direct descendent of Charlemagne, and that her paternal roots are not only European, but Jewish. Meryl Streep and Mike Nichols discover that they are distant cousins, as do Yo-Yo Ma and Eva Longoria.
Interwoven with these stories and others is the journey of the host, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., as he and his father and brother undertake an historic project to have their entire genomes mapped, and thereby to learn everything they possibly can about their own family.
This episode offers a compelling and thought-provoking meditation on the importance of ancestry, the meaning of family and the role of both in creating identity.