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The Value of Knowing Where You Come From

If Chris Rock knew more about his ancestry while growing up, his childhood aspirations of becoming the president of the United States might not have seemed so foolish to his mother. Rock, featured in the second installment of the PBS series in which Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr., uses traditional and genetic genealogical research to uncover the ancestry of prominent African-Americans, discovered that his great-great grandfather was a politician.

Rock, one of 12 people featured in “African American Lives 2” to air starting next week, learns that his great-great grandfather, Julius Caesar Tingman, served with the U.S. Colored Troops during the Civil War and after a few months was promoted to corporal. At 27, Tingman was elected into the South Carolina legislature. When he died in 1917, he had gone from slavery to owning 66 acres of land.

“If I would have known this, it would have taken away the inevitability that I was going to be nothing,” Rock told Gates, adding that his mother shot down his hopes as a child when he said he wanted to be president.

“She didn’t know about their ancestry either,” Gates said at a recent PBS event in Washington, D.C., to announce the premiere date of the series. In addition to learning about Harriet Tubman and other well-known Black historical figures, Rock should have known about Julius Caesar Tingman. “A picture of his great-great-grandfather should have hung above the mantel,” Gates said.

“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,” Gates said

In addition to Rock, the series, set to debut Feb. 6, will examine the ancestry of college administrator Kathleen Henderson, poet Maya Angelou, writer Bliss Broyard, radio host Tom Joyner, Ebony magazine Publisher Linda Johnson Rice, theologian Peter Gomes, singer Tina Turner, actors Don Cheadle and Morgan Freeman, and Olympic gold medalist Jackie Joyner-Kersee as well as Gates, the host and co-producer.

The tagline for the series, “Discover the Truth Behind their Extraordinary Legacy,” suggests that the successes that Rock and other African-Americans have achieved aren’t just due to individual hard work and lucky breaks. For some series participants there appears to be a familial link and for others, a genetic connection.

The series first aired in February of 2006 and revealed that one of Winfrey’s ancestors built a school on his land. Last January, classes commenced at the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls, a $40 million school for girls Winfrey built in Johannesburg, South Africa.

DNA testing for noted music and movie producer, Quincy Jones revealed that he descended from the Tikar of Cameroon, an ethnic group of the country whose members are well known for their artistic and musical talent.

These accomplishments shouldn’t come as a surprise, says Dr. Bruce A. Jackson, director of the African-American Roots Project at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell.

“There certainly is something to be said for the strength of the African-American gene pool,” he says, adding that only the strongest intellectually and most creative could have ever survived the Middle Passage.

Dr. Blaine Bettinger, who last February launched the Web site, says it is too early to try to make genetic connections between the accomplishments of present day people and their ancestor’s passions.

“At this point, it is hard to separate genetics from learned behavior,” says Bettinger, who holds a Ph.D. in biochemistry with a concentration in genetics. A person’s interests and talents can be instilled by their parents, he says.

“I’m a big fan of genetic genealogy, and I think there is a lot of potential for learning more about a person’s ancestry, but it is a science that is still in its early stages,” Bettinger says. On his Web site, Bettinger blogs and publishes links to news stories that examine the intersection between traditional genealogical techniques and DNA testing.

The stories of the individuals in the series also reveal the complexity of race in America. “They’re stories that together offer a new understanding of not only the African-American experience, but also of race in America,” Gates said.

Actor Don Cheadle learns that his ancestors were enslaved by the Chicasaw Nation, a tribe that at the outbreak of the Civil War, allied with the South for preservation of slavery.

Gates starts the process by using traditional ancestry research, including an examination of legal records of births, deaths and property transactions. When the paper trail runs out, he continues with genetic techniques that can include DNA analysis.

Through research of admixture tests, Gates has learned that one out of 20 African-Americans have American Indian roots and all have European roots, he says. His own genetic makeup, Gates says, is about 51 percent African, 49 percent European. Other research has shown that almost all of today’s African-Americans have genetic ties to Senegal, Sierra Leone, Ghana, the Ivory Coast and Angola.

Gates said he has been fascinated with his ancestry since he was 10 years old. During the PBS event he said he wants to create a curriculum that combines traditional and genetic genealogical research to get students excited about studying history and their ancestry.

“If we can get our kids to understand we are survivors, it can begin to affect their self image,” Gates said.

–Cassie Chew

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