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Roots Revisited: PBS Series Takes Black Americans Back to the Motherland

By Tamara Krinsky

Actress Whoopi Goldberg, featured in African American Lives, premiering on PBS

In celebration of Black History Month, PBS will debut African American Lives on Wednesday, February 1, 2006. The four-part series, a co-production of Thirteen/WNET New York and Kunhardt Productions, traces the family trees of an accomplished group of African Americans, including actress Whoopi Goldberg, television host Oprah Winfrey, actor Chris Tucker, former astronaut Mae Jemison and neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson, among others. The series producers are Leslie Asako Gladsjo and Jesse Sweet, and the senior producers are Leslie D. Farrell, Graham Judd and Dyllan McGee.

Scientists and historians use a combination of conventional genealogy documents, such as port records, oral history, family stories and DNA analysis to construct each family's history. The series differs from conventional biography programs in that it interweaves the stories of its nine subjects, emphasizing different research techniques depending on what was most effective for each person.

"The whole arc of these stories gives you a big picture of African-American history because each slots into different aspects of that history," says executive producer William R. Grant. "You find out about the families that trace themselves back to free blacks to the time of the revolution; families who had soldiers who fought in Civil War; in one case, one who was related to a Confederate in the Civil War, and so forth."

"Slavery deprived African Americans of their historical and familial memory," said executive producer/host Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. in a statement. "This series is an attempt to restore that memory--on both sides of the Atlantic."

One of the ways this was accomplished was by using scientific evidence to trace history when the paper trails ran cold. According to Judd, the first census in which African Americans were recorded by first and last name was in 1870. Prior to this, owner's property records were often the most reliable source for data. "If a slave owner died and the slaves were sold, there'd be a list of who was sold," says Judd. "Slaves would be listed with property, along with the most mundane of articles, such as corn. Finding those names was moving, but seeing them listed as property was shocking."

DNA evidence came into play in several ways. In one case, scientists used it to verify a subject's family legend, proving that a slave owner had indeed fathered children with one of his slaves. Science also came in handy in tracing Tucker's lineage. They analyzed his mitochondrial and Y chromosome DNA, combined that with his available historical information and were able to identify with a fair amount of certainty the region in Africa from which he came. One of the highlights of the program is Tucker's trip to this region.

There are many moving moments throughout the series. "Something that stood out for me was seeing these accomplished people learn about what their ancestors managed to achieve, such as reuniting their family or buying land, particularly in the years that followed the end of slavery," says Judd. "Ancestors they didn't know existed had contributed to their own success. It was very powerful to see that."

The series will be accompanied by an educational component, outreach programs with the Boys & Girls Clubs of America and other community-based programs, and a companion website.