Gossip magazine Us! Weekly has a long-running feature called “Stars! They’re Just Like Us!” that shows unfiltered pictures of celebrities walking their dogs or grocery shopping. But those snaps have nothing on the stories host Dr. Henry Louis Gates tells on the popular PBS show, Finding Your Roots. This long-running program is the real “Stars! They’re Just Like Us!”
Since its premiere 10 years ago, the show has profiled notables in entertainment, politics, and culture ranging from Kevin Bacon (who we learn isn’t actually connected to everyone in Hollywood by six degrees of separation) to the late Senator John Lewis to Pastor Rick Warren.
Gates unfolds the family history of each of his subjects using a Book of Life that contains the results of detailed historical research and DNA analysis. These accounts highlight various facets of family stories, from the shocking secrets tangled in the shadows of the past to estrangements among relatives to the courage displayed by immigrant forebears. Finding Your Roots is a mirror that reflects the scope of every human’s family tree, rooted in the view that the unvarnished truth both grounds us and sets us free. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Every man is a quotation from all his ancestors.” Stars may be just like us because each one of us bears the stories of all of those who came before us.
The show has given viewers some fun, if surreal, moments. In the first episode of Season 4, which aired October 3, 2017, Senator Bernie Sanders and comedian Larry David were the show’s subjects. At the time, David was a regular guest on Saturday Night Live, doing an uncanny imitation of Senator Sanders. Many episodes of Finding Your Roots conclude with Gates disclosing DNA connections between the subject of that week’s show and other celebs the show has profiled previously. At the end of this particular episode, Gates reveals that Sanders and David are in fact distant cousins. The two men’s reactions were pure gold. “People say he does a better Bernie Sanders than I do,” the Senator laughed. It turns out, there might have been an unexpected reason why.
One of the things that brings viewers like me back week after week is watching the way Gates’s subjects make connections between the experiences of their forebears and their own lives, often in light of information they hadn’t previously known. One haunting scene occurred during season 7, episode 5, when musician Pharrell Williams read the first-person account of his ancestor’s childhood in slavery. Those words were captured by a writer from the Depression-era Federal Writers Project entitled Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives. Williams was so undone by those words that he had to ask the crew to stop filming. He came back another day to finish filming the episode. He knew his family had been enslaved, but the immediacy of his ancestor’s voice speaking of her experience living as the possession of another human being had changed him and given him a deep appreciation for his family’s strength and resilience.
During its second season, the show had a brush with controversy when it was revealed that before the episode featuring the story of actor Ben Affleck was aired, Affleck asked Dr. Gates and his team to omit the fact that some of Affleck’s ancestors were slaveholders. The uncomfortable truth came out, not only about members of Affleck’s family tree who were slave-owners, but also about Affleck’s attempts to bury the story. Stars can be just those of us who would prefer to present a filtered version of ourselves to the world.
The show also highlights the effect of one generation’s choices on the next. In Season 8, episode 5, Saved by the Bell teen-star-turned-TV-host Mario Lopez credits his immigrant parents for keeping him grounded while he was growing up. The family lived in a neighborhood filled with temptations in Chula Vista, CA, but Lopez’s mom kept him busy by enrolling him in all kinds of after-school activities. “I was the only singing, dancing, wrestling, karate kid I knew,” he said. “And it worked. I never had time to get in any kind of trouble.” Immigrant parents working hard to give their kid a better life is a narrative that has marked many a celebrity’s family history, just as it has shaped so many of ours.
While some of us may be tempted toward turning the story of a great-great-great grandparent’s immigration experience into a tidy moral tale about bootstrapped grit and courage, Finding Your Roots reminds us that that life is rarely that simple. In Season 8, episode 4, actress Patricia Hahn discovered that there was a dark side to the immigrant tale of her third-great-grandfather. Yes, this middle-aged man came to Wisconsin from Prussia to carve out a new life with a young wife. But his daring new life was only half the story. Hahn was stunned to learn that there was another branch of her family tree hiding in the shadows, far from the shine of a happily-ever-after in the New World. Her immigrant third-great-grandfather abandoned a wife and children back in the Old Country. Some of our own relatives weren’t running toward the American Dream as much as they were running away from something—or someone—on the other side of the ocean. Questionable moral choices made by those who came before us may seem to be hidden in the shadows of the past, but buried secrets have all sorts of ways of making an appearance in the lives of subsequent generations. They may be obvious, like the contemporary discovery of a heretofore unknown half-sibling who shows up as a match in consumer DNA test results. Or they may have been spun (or cancelled entirely, as in Hahn’s case) so as to obscure painful truths and rebrand the family’s shame about things that once carried social stigma.
We tend to view the lives of the famous through their popularity or accomplishments. Gates gives us a glimpse at the shoulders of those on which they stand. Fame (and coverage in Us! Weekly) is fleeting, but the legacy created by the character of our forebears endures. This isn’t a new revelation, of course. Scripture has long told us the ways in which God’s story is transmitted well by some, and poorly by others from generation to generation, underscoring that what we are given by those who came before us shapes us, but need not define us. King Josiah, whose story is told in 2 Kings 22:1-23:30, came from the line of King David, but the reigns of his father and grandfather were marked by idolatry and moral compromise. He was given a kingdom shaped by their choices but defied the dark gravity of their sin by making choices that would have made his forebear David proud. Yet when given the throne after his father died, Josiah’s son, Jehoahaz, chose the way of his grandfather instead, reversing the good Josiah had done (2 Kings 23:32). Biblical figures are often just like us, too.
Psychologist Carl Rogers rightly observed that what is most personal is most general. Finding Your Roots uses the lens of a particular person’s experience to reflect our own. We are just like the stars, as Gates’s work asks each one of us to remember our own family histories with compassion and discernment, and recognize that the stories we are telling with our lives will become the history of those who come after us.