Faces of America
“It’s liberating to have another way to think of yourself.”
“America is a basin into which so much has been poured and we don’t understand the half of it.”
That’s how Malcolm Gladwell (journalist and author of The Tipping Point and Outliers) and Elizabeth Alexander (the Yale professor and poet who delivered the poem at President Obama’s inauguration) reacted when Dr. Henry Louise Gates Jr presented their genetic history to them in the upcoming PBS documentary “Faces of America.”
Do you know who you are? What makes America? These are the questions Dr. Gates’ “Faces in America” addresses as it uses culture stars to take an artful look at our interconnectedness and genealogy. The mini-series airs on PBS starting February 10 and continues for four consecutive weeks.
(watch the trailer)
I had a chance to preview a screener (an advance copy) of this remarkable work by Dr. Gates, Harvard Professor and documentarian, and was so compelled by it that I decided to make the show itself this week’s featured art.
Dr. Gates, chair of the Department of African and African American Studies at Harvard, has written and produced many documentaries for PBS, including 2006‘s “African American Lives,” in which Oprah was a guest. The follow up in 2007, “Oprah’s Roots,” further explored the talk show host’s genealogical and genetic roots, which makes total sense because if we could clone Oprah we would, right?
In “Faces in America,” Dr. Gates delves into the ancestry and genealogy of 12 famous people from all facets of culture: Stephen Colbert, Meryl Streep, Dr. Mehmet Oz, Eva Longoria Parker, Yo-Yo Ma, chef Mario Batali, skater Kristi Yamaguchi, poet Dr. Elizabeth Alexander, novelist Louise Erdrich, journalist Malcolm Gladwell, director Mike Nichols, and Her Majesty Queen Noor.
You know, you might be related to some of these people. As “Faces in America” points out, we all share ancient ancestral connections with millions of others.
Even amongst the 12 profiled in the documentary, there are relations that are proven by common genetic signatures found in their DNA comparisons (“autosomal DNA.”) We get to see these normally calm and collected public figures become giddy as they learn surprising news from Dr. Gates about who they are related to (spoiler alert! skip over the bullets if you don’t want to know who’s related before you watch the show):
- Stephen Colbert is related to Elizabeth Alexander
- Eva Longoria Parker is connected to Yo-Yo Ma
- Queen Noor is related to Mario Batali
- And it’s pretty amusing to see Meryl Streep react to her match Mike Nichols
Dr. Gates walks us through the science in a way that everyone can understand. And it’s moving to watch him literally unfold the colorful family trees – these posters are provocative works of art.
The ultimate lesson is that it does matter where we come from because examining this reveals that we’re really all interconnected…and that’s an invaluable jumping off point from which to see one another in an entirely new light.