Updated Fri, Feb 3, 2012 4:12 pm
Faces of America with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Tuesdays at 9 p.m.
What made America? What makes us? These two questions are at the heart of the new PBS series Faces of America with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. The Harvard scholar turns to the latest tools of genealogy and genetics to explore the family histories of 12 renowned Americans — professor and poet Elizabeth Alexander, chef Mario Batali, comedian Stephen Colbert, novelist Louise Erdrich, journalist Malcolm Gladwell, actress Eva Longoria, musician Yo-Yo Ma, director Mike Nichols, Her Majesty Queen Noor, television host/heart surgeon Dr. Mehmet Oz, actress Meryl Streep, and figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi.
Episode 1: Our American Stories
Our American Stories explores the dynamic and shifting relationship America had with her new immigrants in the 20th century. World war tore apart families and sundered the fabric of many lives, but America beckoned and millions came. Yet, America was an ambivalent host. At its best, a place of refuge and salvation, as for film director Mike Nichols whose entire family escaped Nazi Germany. At its worst, a country that would imprison two generations of Japanese Americans, like the ancestors of Olympic gold medalist Kristi Yamaguchi. Along the way, we’ll discover the buoyant American optimism that shaped chance – as in a single encounter that changed cellist Yo-Yo Ma’s life forever – to pave the road to success.
Episode 2: Becoming American
Becoming American explores the many journeys to becoming American that defined the “Century of Immigration” (1820s – 1924) and transformed the United States from a sleepy agrarian country into a booming industrial power. Stephen Colbert’s Irish great-great-grandfather escaped poverty and religious oppression in Limerick and never looked back, whereas Mario Batali’s great-grandfather, who left the place where his family had lived for centuries, struggled to survive in the quartz mines of Montana. Her Majesty Queen Noor’s Syrian great-grandfather quickly found his footing in New York’s first Arab American community, while Kristi Yamaguchi’s grandfather faced exclusionary laws and racially-defined barriers to citizenship for decades. The obstacles, short-cuts, tragedies and successes encountered or created by the guests’ ancestors from around the world reveal the complexity of our shared history and identity as Americans.
Episode 3: Making America
Making America tells the story of the peopling of the New World, of how land came to define the settling and identity of America, and of how the guests’ ancestors were part of this history. We discover descriptions of Meryl Streep’s eighth great-grandfather who fought in Metacom’s War; records of a land dispute in Spain that pushed Eva Longoria’s ancestors to leave for the New World; a treaty that Louise Erdrich’s Native American ancestor was forced to sign; and Yo-Yo Ma’s family genealogy in China, which gives insights into his identity he has longed for his whole life.
Episode 4: Know Thyself
Know Thyself takes up the search for the guests’ ancestries where the historical record leaves off and links their distinctive family histories to the broader history of “the family of man.” Combining the documented stories of some of the guests’ last known ancestors with DNA evidence, the series travel backward through time to reveal both distant relatives and surprising shared ancestral connections. Elizabeth Alexander learns that she is a direct descendent of Charlemagne, and that her paternal roots are not only European, but Jewish. Meryl Streep and Mike Nichols discover that they are distant cousins, as do Yo-Yo Ma and Eva Longoria. Interwoven with these stories and others is the journey of the host, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. as he and his father and brother undertake an historic project to have their entire genomes mapped, and thereby to learn everything they possibly can about their own family. This episode offers a compelling and thought-provoking meditation on the importance of ancestry, the meaning of family and the role of both in creating identity.