If you were among the 16 million viewers of the PBS series “Finding Your Roots With Henry Louis Gates Jr.”
last spring, you already know the secret of its success: people. Not just the people whose stories are being told, but the people who are telling them. Here’s an inside look at the storytellers behind “FYR.”
The premise of the show is simple. In each episode, host and executive producer Gates reveals to two celebrity guests new information about their family history. “We pick people I admire from a variety of professions, ethnic backgrounds and gender identification,” he explains. A quick scan of last season’s celebrity lineup confirms this: Wanda Sykes, Martha Stewart, Sanjay Gupta, Kyra Sedgwick, Condoleeza Rice, Margaret Cho, Yasir Qadhi, Branford Marsalis, Linda Chavez and others.
The ancestral stories he tells share common themes such as ethnic identity (Spanish colonial, Eastern European Jewish, African), life experiences (clergy, musicians, abolitionists) or the celebrities’ discovery of new aspects of their racial identity. All learn about their families within the context of American history.
A dedicated research team unearths the raw historical data. Johni Cerny, co-author of The Source: Guidebook for American Genealogy and chief genealogist for the series, describes the process. “All guests are asked to provide enough information to get us started. Some supply more details than others, including pieces of their family’s oral history.” (Confirming oral history is often the research team’s biggest challenge. Rice’s oral traditions were particularly difficult to verify.)
Cerny partners with experts from the celebrities’ ancestral locales. “Our research averages 200 to 300 hours per guest,” Cerny says. “Some take a great deal more time—Linda Chavez, Wanda Sykes, Samuel L. Jackson and Condi Rice come to mind from the last series.”
Does the research team ever come up dry? Yes, initially, much of the time, especially if records were lost or destroyed. “Eventually, we find something interesting for just about everyone, but only after adding hours of intensive research into obscure records. We could probably do a great series on the unsolved genealogy mysteries of our former guests.”
Research is only part of the work, explains the show’s senior story editor, Leslie Asako Gladsjo. It’s her job to weave together the best ancestral story-lines and celebrity responses. “Often the best stories are the ones we didn’t expect,” she says. “Sometimes we find that a story we’ve labored [to] research elicits little response once the guest is sitting in front of our cameras, while a story we discounted provokes tears, laughs and profound reflection. That affects what we end up using in the show as well.”
Show producers plan celebrity pairs ahead of time, but changes happen. “We initially hoped to pair Geoffrey Canada with John Legend because of their shared interest in education,” explains Gladsjo. “But once we found that both Legend and Wanda Sykes had dramatic stories of free people of color in their family trees, and Canada and Barbara Walters had both lost the trails of their ancestors because of forgotten name changes, we had to reorganize those two shows.” She admits that in the end, they may partner two guests “who we had never imagined would go well together.”
Finally, Gladsjo and Gates consider the series as a whole. “We hope that people who watch every episode come away with something new to think about each time—not just about the genealogical process, but also about history, American identity and human destiny,” she explains.
Gates’ background informs this “bigger picture” perspective. This charming talk-show host is also a Harvard scholar with expertise in African-American history and literature, giving him a special perspective on what he calls “the DNA of American culture.”
He says, “We’re all cousins, even if distant cousins in evolutionary terms. A lot of people are related within the last 300 years. And we’re all descendants of immigrants—even Native Americans migrated here.”
Furthermore, “Race is a fiction,” he says. “There are no purists. People have been sleeping together across ethnic boundaries forever (either willingly or unwillingly). We’ve never tested an African-American who did not have a portion of European ancestry.”
The melting-pot DNA theme appears to have resonated well with viewers. The first season of “FYR” averaged 2.5 million viewers, 29 percent higher than the average prime-time PBS show and 50 percent higher among black viewers. The two most-watched episodes featured Maggie Gyllenhaal and Robert Downey Jr., and Samuel L. Jackson, Condoleeza Rice and Ruth Simmons. An estimated 16.6 million people tuned in to at least one episode.
Guest selection and genealogical research for the show’s second season are underway. “We’ll be using the newest developments in ancestry tracing through DNA as well, so expect some exciting results,” Gates says.
He’s also excited for a reason Family Tree Magazine readers will easily recognize: “Introducing people to their distant ancestors is one of the principal joys of my life.”
Watch the first season’s episodes and additional video, and check for the most up-to-date news on the upcoming “FYR” season here.