• Unrated,
  • Documentary
  • Directed By:
    On DVD:
    Apr 13, 2010
  • PBS

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Faces Of America Reviews

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gillianren
October 4, 2011
Who We Are Is Built on Who They Were

If you go back far enough, we're all cousins. Everyone knows that. And it doesn't matter whether you're looking at it from a creationist standpoint or a scientific one; they both presuppose that the human tree narrows enough to give us all common ancestry. However, I would really like to know exactly how it's possible for Eva Longoria and Yo-Yo Ma to have shared a common ancestor within the last two and a half centuries or so. Logically, this means that the percentage of her ancestry labeled "Asian" isn't just Native American, given that Yo-Yo Ma was shown to be 100% Asian. (Perhaps the funniest moment in the miniseries, which was much funnier than you'd think, was the pie chart for Stephen Colbert labeled "100% White Man.") Or maybe there's a Native American somewhere back in the Ma lineage, though that seems somewhat less likely to me. Alas, if they were able to document that, they didn't show us the results.

Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., chose twelve famous Americans and traced their family trees, looking for both the surprises in it and how those family trees helped define America as we know it today. The various people were important in a wide range of fields and were descendants of a wide range of ethnic groups. The twelve chosen were Elizabeth Alexander, Mario Batali, Stephen Colbert, Louise Erdrich, Malcolm Gladwell, Yo-Yo Ma, Mike Nichols, Mehmet Oz, Meryl Streep, Kristi Yamaguchi, Meryl Streep, and Queen Noor of Jordan. Erdrich has Chippewa ancestry and Longoria Mayan, and Ma was born in Paris. Gates produced a scrapbook for each of the twelve, presenting the information he found. He also did genetic testing on eleven--Erdrich declined--to find out more detailed information than merely tracing ancestry could provide. The show was presented in four one-hour segments, including both sitting down with the various people and travels as interesting as a trip to the ancestral village of the Ma family.

And what they found there was one of the more astounding things; almost miraculously preserved from the Cultural Revolution was a centuries-long genealogy the Ma family kept of itself--with Yo-Yo marked on it already. Gates was able to find the actual land grant given to the Longoria family and information about her first Spanish ancestor to travel to the New World--in 1603, before Jamestown was founded. Gates produced evidence that Malcolm Gladwell's grandfather lied about how he got to the US; he was in first class, not a stowaway. Meryl Streep is a distant relative of William Penn. Mike Nichols discovered that his mother wasn't lying when she said that Einstein was a cousin. (As it turns out, he's also related to Mehmet Oz.) Of interest to me personally is that my father and Kristi Yamaguchi's were born in the same town, Gilroy, about a year apart. Though her family ended up in Arizona for rather different reasons than mine did.

In many ways, it turns out to be true that Stephen Colbert is the Ultimate American. He is of German and Irish (mostly Irish) descent, and much of his family came to the United States when people were actively trying to keep people of that nationality out. Gates had Colbert read, among other things, a quote from Benjamin Franklin about the inadvisability of letting so many Germans into the US, because we'll all become German instead of the Germans' becoming American. Colbert's several-greats grandmother arrived in New York during the Draft Riots. Similarly, Eva Longoria had an ancestor who managed to live under five different flags while only moving once. The history of the United States, as Gates himself says, is one of migration. After all, it's how we all got here. Colbert's German ancestor came to the United States before there was a United States. But the Longorias did, too. As did Louise Erdrich's Chippewa ancestors, who aren't discussed much. This is the story of a country told through the histories of the people living in it.

It's rather appropriate that one of the things discussed is race in the United States. Elizabeth Alexander has been identified by and identified with her black heritage her whole life, but it turns out she has just barely over a quarter African ancestry and is in fact descended from Charlemagne. (And Stephen Colbert's cousin; both agreed that they'd felt a connection when she appeared on his show, though I only have so much connection with the cousins with whom I was raised!) Gates is more European than African as well--and the Harvard professor so famously arrested for breaking into his own home. On returning home from a trip to China. Where he had been researching Yo-Yo Ma's ancestry. For this show. I think that shows as much as anything on the program that, no matter how far we've come since the Longorias and Batalis and Halabys came to this country, we've still got a considerable distance to go before our ancestry is only of interest to ourselves.
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