Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Faces of America: How 12 Extraordinary People Discovered Their Pasts by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

"Think how many lives we carry around with us. Everything that they learned, everything that wounded them, everything that made them stronger, everything that made them happy, we carry in our little corporeal selves." Meryl Streep

Several people told me earlier in the year that I should see Faces of America, the Henry Louis Gates, Jr. genealogy series that ran on public television. I agreed with them that the series appeared to be something that I would enjoy, but many months later I still have not viewed it. It is among the many books and DVDs still on my "someday" list. I did, however, find the companion book sitting on the library's new book shelf just before Christmas when I needed something to read. I have now read about the ancestors of twelve prominent Americans whom Gates chose to represent as a cross section of our country. The book seems to tell a pretty complete story, so I may not need to see the series now, but I have placed a library request. The stories were good and merit a bit more of my attention. Someday will come soon.

It is hard to say which of the stories in Faces of America: How 12 Extraordinary People Discovered Their Pasts I liked best. It might have been the last, in which Gates reports on his research into the ancestry of actress Eva Longoria, who grew up in south Texas on land that her family has held for centuries. Having grown up in Texas myself, I know that some historically-ill-informed Anglos think all Hispanics are recent arrivals in the United States, but the Longorias have been in Texas since 1749, when the area was part of New Spain. Like many early settlers, they had to defend their legal holdings against the later arriving land hungry Anglos. As he does with each case but one, Gates adds DNA testing. The surprise for Longoria is that she is mostly European genetically - she had suspected more Native American ancestry - and she has common ancestors with Meryl Streep and Yo-Yo Ma. Ma's ancestry is totally Asian but so is the DNA of most Native Americans.

Anyone who has spent time looking up family trees, discovering the prominent citizens and criminals in their ancestral past will appreciate the stories Gates tells, as he reveals the individuals with the context of their times. Most of his subjects report feeling more connected to history after getting the documentary and DNA reports. An appendix further explains the DNA testing for those who might like to try the process themselves.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. Faces of America: How 12 Extraordinary People Discovered Their Pasts. New York University Press, 2010. ISBN 9780814732649.

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