Shortly after I got married – eons ago – I became obsessed with researching my family history. That was back in the days before home computers. To get records, I had to request microfiche film from our local Mormon church, send letters overseas with return postage hoping for a response, and visit libraries, city halls and government records departments, and graveyards in person.
Genealogy research has evolved since then. Today with websites like Ancestry.com, anyone can find a wealth of information and even connect with distant family members doing their own research. In fact, I was recently contacted by a third cousin once removed that I’d never known, and who currently lives in England. It turns out that his great-grandfather and my grandfather were brothers. It is so incredibly awesome to be able to make connections like that.
To feed my love of genealogy and of history, I’ve discovered two shows with similar themes on two different channels: Who Do You Think You Are? (NBC) and Finding Your Roots (PBS)
Finding Your Roots (PBS)
Finding YourRoots is the brainchild of host/producer Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a professor at Harvard University. It began airing just this year, but is sort of a spin-off of his 2010 PBS series Faces of America, which also focused on genealogy. Gates’ programs are especially good at bringing history alive and making it personal through the stories of the celebs’ various ancestors.
In each episode Gates focuses on three unique individuals – sometimes, but not always “celebs”—who have some ancestral characteristic in common, such as slavery or religion. Gates and his production company do all the research, and then he has a sit-down with each of the individuals, presenting them with their own personal “life book” and talking them through their ancestry and family history. Gates designs each episode to focus on an important historical aspect of our culture as a nation.
One episode bounced between married couple Kyra Sedgwick and Kevin Bacon, riffing on the six degree of separation theme that is associated in pop culture with Bacon. And sure enough, it turns out there is a relationship connection between the two (something like seventh cousins).
Some of the other people Gates has featured include Samuel L. Jackson, Condolezza Rice, Robert Downey, Jr., Sanjay Gupta, Wanda Sykes, and John Legend among many others.
Gates also goes beyond simply building a family tree for each of his guests. He uses DNA testing to trace the genetic roots back into ancient Europe, Asian and Africa. It’s often a surprise for an individual to find out what ethnic groups their family lines are or are not derived from.
Who Do You Think You Are? (NBC)
Who Do You Think You Are? is in its 3rd season on NBC, having started in 2010. It is sponsored by Ancestry.com, which uses obvious product placement for its services within every program.
The approach for the NBC program is a bit different from PBS one, in that each episode focuses on one celebrity who narrates his or her own journey and who reflects on the implications of what they discover about their own personal ancestry. While it’s obvious that all the research has been done prior to the celebs arrival at each location, it is fun feeling like you are traveling with them to various locations in the U.S. and even overseas.
I was especially moved by the episode featuring Rashida Jones, actress on the comedy Parks and Recreation and daughter of Quincy Jones and Peggy Lipton. Jones traced her Jewish ancestry back to Latvia where she discovered that members of her extended family had been brutally murdered during the Holocaust.
SNL’s Jason Sudeikis, Rob Lowe, Edie Falco, Rita Wilson, Reba McEntire, Martin Sheen, and Chef Paula Deen are among the celebs featured this season.
It’s important that people connect with their family histories. While history textbooks tend to deal in generalities, when we learn the personal stories of our ancestors, we change our perceptions of what a complex history we have as a nation and what a complex culture we live in.
These two genealogy programs that I love may not be everyone’s cup of tea. But how many of us face the passing of grandparents or even parents realizing that we never asked them about their family stories?
We can start by asking questions about where our parents, our grand-parents and our great-grandparents came from. Be inquisitive. Pull out the old photos and start a family discussion. Ask the older family members to tell their stories and the stories they heard when they were young. You might be surprised at how delighted they are to share those stories with you.
And it is those stories, those experiences by people we may never have known, that played a role in shaping our own lives today.