Another year, another Black History Month, another Henry Louis Gates Jr. PBS special. Gates has the lock on this annual Afrocentrifest, and make no mistake. Following in the footsteps of his previous TV programs Wonders of the African World and America Beyond the Color Line, African American Lives is a four-hour miniseries that proves black history doesn’t need to be a black hole. Drawing on genealogy experts and contemporary DNA technology, Gates traces the family history of eight celebrity guests as far back as possible—sometimes even back to Africa. Along the way, he uses events in the lives of these families to make broad but engaging points about American history. Illustrating the various dramatic effects of the Great Migration, he notes that most of the subjects’ ancestors got swept up in the disorienting journey north, but one forward- thinking preacher bought land in his Georgia village and parceled it out to his parishioners in order to keep their close-knit community together.
Gates plays it like a folksy Mr. Rogers figure, sometimes even grasping a guest’s hand after a poignant discovery. As he digs for his own roots, Gates offers genealogical tips for ordinary people who want to look blackward. But his eight subjects aren’t ordinary people by any stretch of the imagination —they include Oprah, Whoopie, Quincy Jones, Chris Tucker, and astronaut Mae Jemison. Although I’m sure their heartrending family histories resemble those of thousands of other African Americans, the fame at the end of the rainbow is distracting. Oprah finds an ancestor who went from illiterate slave to schoolmaster in a decade; Gates’s great-great-grandmother Jane somehow managed to buy a house shortly after her emancipation. You have to wonder how much of a ripple effect these extraordinary accomplishments had on their descendents, and how much, as Gates jokes about his own family, is in the genes.