In Search of Our Fathers

Fall's return coincides with the return to public television of my genealogy series, Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., airing each Tuesday at 8pm ET on PBS now through November 25 (check local listings). Finding Your Roots makes researching family trees -- and weaving their diverse branches into powerful narratives -- not only fascinating and fun but a communal quest that is core to the American story. In discovering our own personal roots, we rediscover the history we were taught in ways that make it more meaningful, relevant, and alive. Suddenly, leaves that seemed dried up burst into vivid colors, with census records, birth, marriage, and death certificates, old newspaper articles, and strands of human DNA sprouting clues to stories with the potential to alter how we see ourselves in the future and how we see our families in the dense forests of the past.

Season 2 of Finding Your Roots features 10 one-hour episodes and 30 high-profile guests as varied as Jessica Alba, Ben Affleck, Derek Jeter, Tina Fey, Billie Jean King, and Alan Dershowitz. It is our most diverse cast yet.

Episode 201, "In Search of Our Fathers," kicks off tonight with best-selling author Stephen King, actress, singer, and social activist Gloria Reuben, and Tony Award-winning actor Courtney B. Vance -- three guests I never would have thought of in the same breath until I discovered each was seeking answers to the same fundamental human questions:

Who was my father? Who were his people? How did they make my life possible?

It was my job -- and the job of my outstanding team of researchers, scientists, and genealogists -- to find the answers to these questions, which clearly had haunted each of our guests for a very long time.

Here's a hint of what we learned:

1. Stephen King is not the only one in his paternal line to have suffered a father's disappearance. Turns out, Donald King (whose real name, we found out through diligent research, was Donald Pollack and was never legally changed at all) deserted his family one day when ostensibly making a routine trip to the store to buy a pack of cigarettes. Stephen King was just two years old. And Donald lost his father at age six, when perished in the Spanish Flu Epidemic all the way back in 1918 (incidentally, the last time Stephen King's beloved Red Sox won the World Series before their return to glory in 2004). Also disappearing with his dad was any knowledge about Stephen's entire paternal line, which we resurrected back to Stephen's fourth great grandfather, a man names James Pollack, who left Ireland for the United States in the 1780's, following the American Revolution, and who was a Methodist Minister. And on still another branch of Stephen King's father's line, we found Stephen's third great grandfather, named Enoch Bowden, also a leader in the Methodist church, a judge, and a staunch opponent of slavery. Six of his sons actually fought to abolish slavery in the Civil War. Incredibly, Stephen knew nothing of this family history; not a word. He didn't even recognize his father in a photograph we found of him from his military service. For a writer who has given us such notable father figures (think The Shining or Pet Semetary), it's a revelation as astonishing as it is suspenseful. (Less so is the fact, as DNA proves, that King is, in his own words, "the whitest man you've ever interviewed in your life.")

2. Gloria Reuben, beloved by many for her role as Jeanie Boulet on the classic television drama,ER, had few clues to go one about her late father Cyril Reuben's family tree other than that he was married once before. But now, with the aid of genealogic research and DNA testing, we were able to cross the borders of Gloria's birth in Canada all the way to Jamaica, where the paper trail in Kingston's oldest synagogue revealed that Reuben's father descended from a tiny Jewish-Jamaican community that stretched back to the founding of a Spanish colony on the island in the 1540s. Gloria's mother's side of the family, we discovered, came through Jamaica, too--as other men's property--via the Middle Passage, directly from Africa; in fact, for the very first time, we were able to find a black person's original African ancestor, Gloria's fifth great grandmother, a woman named Leonorah, born in Africa in 1767! "Basically, I'm a Jewish girl in a black body," Reuben said, responding to the revelations about her father's ancestry.

3. Then there's Courtney B. Vance, who had no clues to go on, since his father Conroy had been raised in foster care in Chicago without any knowledge of his biological parents. Above all else, Courtney wanted us to find his father's biological mother. And we did! His mother's name was Ardella Vance and she gave birth to Courtney's father was she was 17, and unmarried. (We even uncovered a very public court case in which Ardella accused her own minister of having fathered her child.) Astonishingly, we discovered in census records that Ardella Vance lived around the corner, on the South Side of Chicago, from her biological son Conroy, by then in another family's care, without Courtney's father ever knowing it. We also learned Vance's mother descended from a Maryland slave who ran away around 1842 and was advertised to fugitive hunters as "age 22, light brown color, five feet five, has a scar upon one of his great toes from a cut of an axe." This ancestor, Courtney's great-great grandfather, John Janey, escaped through the Underground Railroad. Later, he joined the 22nd Regiment of the U.S. Colored Troops during the Civil War and even marched in President Lincoln's funeral procession. Not knowing his parents's identity left other scars on Courtney's father. Now, Courtney knows the truth.

History isn't just a set of boring facts and dates; it can have marvelous healing powers.

Unlike Ralph Edwards's vintage series, This is Your Life, in which guests would hear voices from their immediate pasts, Finding Your Roots delves deep into history to unearth secrets, enabling ancestors and relatives heretofore unknown and unspoken of to reappear as central characters with the potential to shape and inspire lives still unfolding. In doing so, the series deconstructs categories of race and ethnicity with cutting-edge DNA analysis and old-fashioned archival research. The effect is not only personally poignant for my guests; it hopefully will inspire others to look for the forgotten stories in their families.

That is my goal: for every person in America -- and, beyond it, the world -- to investigate her or his family tree. I'm especially passionate about generating that interest in our nation's inner city schools, where it's often a challenge to excite young people about science and research. That is why I have teamed up with 40 other scholars to work on a curriculum that will spark that connection through personal genealogical journeys. Family trees are the ultimate "selfies," as Mika Brzezinksi said to me on "Morning Joe" this morning. My goal is to for students to thrill at "snapping" their ancestors through curiosity and hard work.

As you can probably tell from my role on Finding Your Roots, I'm a teacher at heart; that's my wonderful day job, here at Harvard. At its best, though, when we shoot these reveals (which can take as much as three or four hours, as I walk a guest up the various branches of her or his family tree), I feel as if I am Santa Claus delivering presents full of long-lost ancestors and their stories, giving the gifts of personal--and historical--insight to thirty fascinating people thirsting for knowledge about their ancestral roots.

Finding your roots is the ultimate mode of self-knowledge, isn't it? Find your roots; find yourself. That's how I see it. Thankfully, with the premiere of Season 2 of Finding Your Roots upon us tonight, Christmas is going to come early this year for 30 people whom I very much admire--on your local PBS station. I hope you'll watch these riveting stories, which re-tell the story of America in the most surprisingly personal ways.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr.