Unlike most white Americans who, if they are so inclined, can search their ancestral records, identifying who among their forebears was the first to set foot on this country’s shores, most African Americans, in tracing their family’s past, encounter a series of daunting obstacles. Slavery was a brutally efficient nullifier of identity, willfully denying black men and women even their names. Yet, from that legacy of slavery, there have sprung generations who’ve struggled, thrived, and lived extraordinary lives.
For too long, African Americans’ family trees have been barren of branches, but, very recently, advanced genetic testing techniques, combined with archival research, have begun to fill in the gaps. Here, scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., backed by an elite team of geneticists and researchers, takes nineteen extraordinary African Americans on a once unimaginable journey, tracing family sagas through U.S. history and back to Africa.
Those whose recovered pasts collectively form an African American “people’s history” of the United States include celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey, Whoopi Goldberg, Chris Rock, Don Cheadle, Chris Tucker, Morgan Freeman, Tina Turner, and Quincy Jones; writers such as Maya Angelou and Bliss Broyard; leading thinkers such as Harvard divinity professor Peter Gomes, the Reverend T. D. Jakes, neurosurgeon Ben Carson, and sociologist Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot; and famous achievers such as astronaut Mae Jemison, media personality Tom Joyner, decathlete Jackie Joyner-Kersee, and Ebony and Jet publisher Linda Johnson Rice.
More than a work of history, In Search of Our Roots is a book of revelatory importance that, for the first time, brings to light the lives of ordinary men and women who, by courageous example, blazed a path for their famous descendants. For a reader, there is the stirring pleasure of witnessing long-forgotten struggles and triumphs–but there’s an enduring reward as well. In accompanying the nineteen contemporary achievers on their journey into the past and meeting their remarkable forebears, we come to know ourselves.
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HENRY LOUIS GATES, JR., is the director of the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research and holder of the distinguished title of Alphonse Fletcher University Professor at Harvard University. He is the author of several award-winning works of literary criticism as well as the memoir Colored People; The Future of the Race, co-authored with Cornel West; and Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man.From Booklist:
*Starred Review* Following up on the PBS series tracing the genealogy of 19 prominent African Americans, Gates details the long and arduous efforts given the abrupt disruption of the Middle Passage and the secrets created by illicit race mixing during and after slavery. In each chapter, he highlights the personal family history of each subject and the particular challenges of tracing the family’s roots. Photographs and personal recollections of family stories add to the fascinating detail as Gates reveals to the subjects the results of searching genealogical records and using DNA testing to find their specific African origins. Among those whose roots he traced are Oprah Winfrey, Maya Angelou, Morgan Freeman, Tina Turner, Quincy Jones, and Peter Gomes, all of whom recall cherished family legends and intimate secrets. Gates puts each search in the broader context of African American and American history with an appreciation for the texture of the lives of ordinary people in contributing to the history of a nation and the complexity of race. The final chapter offers sound advice and insight on conducting genealogical research. Gates’ famous enthusiasm for history and African American genealogy is evident throughout this fascinating book. --Vanessa Bush
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