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Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Speaks At The Mondavi Center

Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. delivered a lecture about “African American Lives: Genealogy, Genetics and Black History.”

What do you know about your family tree?

In the age of technology, much has been made possible, especially in the field of genetics. We watch our high-definition televisions and see a commercial advertisement for ancestry.com or africanancestry.com.

Suddenly, we begin to wonder about our own family tree – the gaps of missing information, the unrecorded years and disappearances of family members. We then ask ourselves that question.

“What do I know about my family history?”

Monday, May 9, the University of California, Davis Humanities Institute presented the “Distinguished Speakers Series,” featuring the renowned scholar Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. The evening lecture, held in the Mondavi Center’s Jackson Hall, focused on Gates work with “African American Lives: Genealogy, Genetics and Black History.”

Gates is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also the Editor-in-Chief of the Oxford African American Studies Center, the first comprehensive scholarly online resource in the field of African American studies and Africana studies.

While most people generally are curious about their family history, African Americans in particular, have asked this peculiar question more often. In fact, African Americans have no greater question that seeks an urgent answer in providing knowledge about their identity and ancestral origin to a unique and fragmented history.

“So, how can a man with a background in literature and African American studies end up writing books about genealogy?” Gates asked the audience.

“Well, I wanted to be like Alex Haley,” he said, speaking of the late author of the groundbreaking novel, “Roots.”

“You could say I had a case of ‘Roots Envy,’” said Gates.

The professor began to explain, in great detail, his own family lineage. His personal account of discovering his family roots underscored the importance of genealogy, the intricacy of African American family history and racial identity. The use of historical references and his life experiences helped to further illustrate how Gates came to be fascinated by genealogy.

Gates shared with the audience the in-depth process it took to trace his family history. A series of significant tests for genetics and ancestry were taken. These tests were performed for Y-DNA (father), Mitochondrial-DNA (mother) and Admixture. The last test (admixture) provided a breakdown of three racial percentages: African, European and Native-American ancestry.

After these tests are performed, genetic information is matched with a database of sampled DNA from the three racial categories, and the results are then further narrowed down. The process is extensive and contains details that, due to time constraints, were limited in explanation.

Gates also shared his experiences about building the PBS special “African American Lives.” The Professor said it was important for him to show African Americans with different complexions and varied phenotypes, specifically relating to facial features. The first of the series featured A-List celebrities, industry moguls and icons, scholars and religious figures. Quincy Jones, Oprah Winfrey, Whoopi Goldberg, Dr. Ben Coleman, Dr. Mae Jemison, Bishop T.D. Jakes and Chris Tucker were a few of the participants. The first time the program aired, eight million viewers watched. The series detailed the celebrity guests’ search to discover their ancestry.

During the evening, audience members viewed a clip of “African American Lives 2.” The second installment in the series featured more well-known public figures. The series is intriguing to watch, knowing that everyone shares a common desire – the desire to know about his or her family history.

“Want to know why Oprah got to where she is today?” Gates asked the audience.

He then shared a snippet of the family history of the media icon. One could conclude from the information given that the spirit of entrepreneurship and determination could very well be found in the blood as a genetic trait. The proverbial adage “the proof is in the pudding” really rings true. The importance of genetics can help explain personal qualities and characteristics, a strange unquantifiable inheritance of sorts, passed down through one generation to the next.

Gates is an engaging and energetic speaker. The scholar, educator and public servant ended with an inspirational message for the future. He hopes to make genetic research accessible through public education and develop a program that will teach this information in school.

Imagine how youth would respond to learning the relevance of their personal genetics in science class, and linking that to their family history. If Gates succeeds in developing this program, the youth of tomorrow will be immersed in this enriched, enlightening and interesting learning experience.

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