PBS special delves into family histories of celebrities


Published: Thursday, January 31, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 30, 2008 at 4:14 p.m.

Building on the acclaim of ‘‘African American Lives’’ (2006) and ‘‘Oprah's Roots’’ (2007), ‘‘African American Lives 2’’ will again journey deep into the African-American experience to reveal the triumphs and tragedies within the family histories of an all new group of participants.

Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. will return as series host, guiding genealogical investigations down through the 20th century, Reconstruction, slavery and early U.S. history, and presenting cutting-edge genetic analysis that locates participants' ancestors in Africa, Europe and America.

‘‘African American Lives 2 will air from 9-11 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 6 and Feb. 13 on PBS, which is Cox Channel 3.

"These discoveries about our ancestors are fascinating stories that everyone, regardless of race, can identify with and draw inspiration from," said Gates, the Alphonse Fletcher University professor and director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University. "They're stories that together offer a new understanding of not only the African-American experience, but also of race in America."

Joining Gates in the new broadcast are poet Maya Angelou, author Bliss Broyard, actor Don Cheadle, actor Morgan Freeman, theologian Peter Gomes, publisher Linda Johnson Rice, athlete Jackie Joyner-Kersee, radio personality Tom Joyner, comedian Chris Rock, rock 'n' roll legend Tina Turner and college administrator Kathleen Henderson, who was selected from more than 2,000 applicants to have her family history researched and DNA tested alongside the series' well-known guests.

"Through even greater depth of research and more powerful storytelling, all of the stories in ‘‘African American Lives 2’’ share a common thread — they show the value of knowing who you are and where you come from," added Gates. "And now, the inclusion of Kathleen's story shows that viewers everywhere can take this same journey."

Episode one, "The Road Home" (9 p.m. Feb. 6), focuses on participants' ancestors in the early 20th century. Stories include the tragic account of Tom Joyner's great-uncles who, in 1915, were convicted by an all-white jury and executed in the electric chair for a crime that new evidence suggests they did not commit, and Bliss Broyard, who lived her life unaware that her father, renowned New York Times critic Anatole Broyard, was a light-skinned black man who chose to "pass" as white. She learned of her African-American roots upon her father's death in 1990.

Episode two, "A Way Out of No Way" (10 p.m. Feb. 6), continues tracing the guests' lineages back through the late 1800s to the Civil War, featuring such stories as Chris Rock's maternal great-great-grandfather, Julius Caesar Tingman, a black Civil War veteran who was twice elected to the South Carolina State Legislature; and Don Cheadle's ancestors, who had been enslaved by Chickasaw Indians and brought to Oklahoma on the tail end of the "Trail of Tears," the forced relocation of Native Americans during the 1830s.

Episode three, "We Come From People" (9 p.m. Feb. 13), reveals stories of participants' ancestors during the early years of the United States, such as a riveting account of life in slavery by Morgan Freeman's great-grandmother, discovered within the records of the Depression-era Works Progress Administration, and Peter Gomes' ancestors, who were freed and supported by Quaker families in Virginia in the late 1700s.

In episode four, "The Past Is Another Country" (10 p.m. Feb. 13), DNA analysis leads to fascinating discoveries about participants' lineages. A groundbreaking study links Gates to a powerful ancient Irish warlord, while evidence suggests Gomes' direct paternal line traces back to a Portuguese Jew who fled the country in the early 1500s to escape the Inquisition.

A book by Gates, ‘‘In Search of Our Roots: How 19 Extraordinary African Americans Reclaimed Their Past,’’ will be published this spring incorporating the family histories of all of the participants.

An educational outreach effort will guide K-12 teachers in the use of the broadcast program, Web site and educational print materials in standards-based classroom instruction.

For more information, visit www.pbs.org or www.pbs.org/teachers/.

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