Posted by: Sarah | March 7, 2010

Faces of America: Do we know ourselves as well as we think?

Yesterday, I was swept up in a PBS series I DVR-ed a few weeks back: Faces of America with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.


I sat down thinking I’d watch the first episode (1 HR) during lunch but ended up spellbound for the full four hours, pausing once to throw my crusty dishes in the sink and again to let my dog Gatsby out. The show aired every Wednesday between February 10 and March 3 and caught my eye when I saw the names of author Louise Erdrich, poet Elizabeth Alexander, celebrity chef Mario Batali, funnyman Stephen Colbert, actress Meryl Streep, Dr. Mehmet Oz (whom I had the privilege of interviewing for my health column a couple years ago) and half a dozen other American celebrities.

The two questions at the core of the series were: What made America and what makes us? To answer these, Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr. served as a kind of multicultural tour guide and archeologist of American genetics. The research sample was composed of 12 renowned celebrities representing the major cultural backgrounds of our country: white/European, African-American, Latino, Asian and Native American. The results were absolutely remarkable.

In the final episode, “Know Thyself,” Gates revealed that 11 of the 12 participants are distant cousins. One relational pairing was Stephen Colbert, whose ethnic pie chart was 100 percent white/European, and Elizabeth Alexander, the poet and current chair of the African American Studies Department at Yale. Despite all physical appearances and social history, Alexander tested 66 percent white/European, 27 percent African and 7 percent Asian. When given her pie chart results she said, “If all of us were only known by our DNA, we’d have a whole different American History.”

Considering my personal fascination with history, genealogy and culture, the show was Saturday afternoon manna. I immediately began wondering how my pie chart would appear. From what I know, my ethnic breakdown goes something like this:

Father—Swedish/European and a little bit of Choctaw Indian

Mother—Puerto Rican (Spanish and Taino Indian)

That’s what I’ve been told. That’s the narrative account by which I categorize my ancestry. But what if that was totally off base? What if I’m not who I always thought I was?

For many of the participants, their ethnic pie chart results shook their self-identity. The stories passed down from generation to generation of great-great-great grandpa’s courage during years of slavery or great-great-great grandma’s artistic talents gave them knowledge of their forbearers and a sense of who they are today. How many of us have been told, you have your grandma’s eyes, grandpa’s stubbornness, Aunt Rita’s laugh, Uncle Tom’s height, etc. I certainly have. Growing up, I derived great pride and comfort in knowing I share these traits with those that came before me. That I belonged.

As participants flipped through sepia colored photos of their relatives, I too flipped through mental images, recalling yellowed and humidity-eaten photographs of my Puerto Rican side: my great grandfather standing among tall sugarcane stalks; my great-grandma in corset and long skirt despite the tropical heat; my grandpa in uniform, just back from Korea; my grandma smiling and pregnant with my mother. On my father’s side, I have countless photographs of my grandparents looking chic and gorgeous in 1950 Oklahoma. My grandma’s dresses were always Easter egg colored, her hair golden and coiffed. My grandpa was strong and handsome, a proud papa to my father. It’s naïve to say that who these people were genetically is not as influential as the choices they made in life. Unfortunately, in our society, what is seen on the outside (our physical attributes) often directly affects our life experiences.

This was what I found specifically remarkable. Gates took the DNA of each of his participants and scientifically proved the old adage: You can’t judge a book by its cover. Poet Elizabeth Alexander discovered she was genetically more white/European than African. Mexican-American actress Eva Longoria discovered she was 70 percent white, 27 percent Native American and 3 African. “I’m so proud of being Mexican,” she said. “Little shaky to my foundation.”

Author Louise Erdrich refused to participate explaining, “Identity is a very complicated mixture of what you grew up with, what you find out about your self… I didn’t want to add any confusion to it.” When she asked her family about providing her DNA, they said, “It’s not yours to give.”

“Yours is theirs,” clarified Gates.

I was deeply touched by this perspective on our personal identities and our responsibility to the men and women whose bloodlines we exist upon. Our genes, our fleshly bodies, ailments, personality traits, quirks and habits are ours but not ours alone. We are living amalgams transcending time and race.

This point was proven unquestionably through the discussion of Haplogroups: shared genetic ancestry in the study of molecular evolution. One of my favorite parts of the series was when Gates provided concrete evidence that director Mike Nicols (Jewish) and Dr. Mehmet Oz (Muslim) share the exact genetic makeup, scientifically supporting the Biblical story of Abraham, Isaac, and Ishmael.

As Gates presented familial tree after tree to his participants, the broadness of our world’s population became smaller and smaller. Our connection to our neighbors despite color, religion or country of origin grew closer. As a human race, the building blocks of our substance reminds us that we are all descendents of common greatness, of royal bloodlines, of great success and great failures, of generational stories passed through the ages. We are the children of Adam and Eve. Their DNA is stamped irrevocably within.

Takes your breath away a bit—or at least, it does mine. When the show ended, I sat stunned and imbued with a feeling of… profound honor and accountability to do right by my ancestors, to make the most of this life and leave my own good stitch in the genetic tapestry.

Gates closed the program saying, “The quest to know ourselves is eternal. We can never be reduced to a list of our physical straights. In the end, it’s maybe best to think of who we are as a mosaic… not only our ancestor’s genomes but also their life choices and their fortunes, good and bad. The takeaway is the same: Know thy past, know thyself.”

I couldn’t put it any better.

Yours truly, Sarah

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