Renowned Harvard professor and engaging TV personality might seem like mutually exclusive terms. Imagine a prime-time series featuring Henry Kissinger droning on in his self-absorbed, lecture-hall way. But Henry Louis Gates Jr., the W.E.B DuBois professor of humanities at Harvard, consistently scores high grades on the small screen.
Two years ago in Beyond the Color Line, he winningly led PBS viewers on a journey through African-American culture and life 35 years after the death of Martin Luther King Jr. Tonight at 9, he returns to public television with African American Lives, an equally compelling series that traces the genealogy of nine black achievers.
Think Alex Haley's Roots with famous people - and a surprise scientific ending thanks to advances in DNA analysis. There are also profound insights into the way some people construct their ethnic identity, but it is all done so skillfully, thanks to the self-deprecating grace of Gates, that the series never loses its sense of adventure.
The two-night, four-hour series features a lineup with major marquee muscle: talk show host Oprah Winfrey, composer Quincy Jones and comedian/actors Chris Tucker and Whoopi Goldberg. Men and women of letters, science and religion are included as well: Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson, Harvard sociologist Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, astronaut Mae Jemison and minister T.D Jakes, the pastor of a nondenominational congregation of 30,000 members in Dallas.
The ninth achiever in search of his roots is Gates, who traces his own past back to some very surprising places. Viewers see him in the final hour of the series sharing a DNA analysis with Harvard students in an African-American seminar that he teaches and joking as to whether he still qualifies for affirmative-action programs.
But before the series gets to DNA, it starts with the more traditional, non-scientific methods of trying to re-create one's lineage: family stories, oral history and genealogy. As Gates interviews his eight fellow time travelers about their knowledge of their histories, he broadens their personal narratives with still photographs, music and video clips that skillfully create an underpinning of African-American life in 20th- and 21st-century America.
The narratives are powerful in their own right. Jones talks about his mother's fleeing the South to avoid seeing more members of her family trapped in a life of prostitution. Gates' father talks about how he felt when a white man denied his wife a seat on a bus - and he did nothing to protest the insult.
Jakes, the minister, puts his finger on one of the difficulties often experienced by members of an oppressed minority in even getting started on a study of their personal pasts: parents and grandparents who self-censor family stories to spare their children some of the harsher facts.
"I don't think my father wanted us to know how bad it was," Jakes tells Gates. "It was almost like they thought that if they didn't tell us, we wouldn't know."
One the most intense personal histories is provided by Winfrey as she tells Gates of being forced to sleep on the porch rather than in the house with the other members of an extended African-American family, because of the darkness of her skin. She also chronicles a history of being sexually abused as a child.
Unfortunately, one cannot witness Winfrey's tears or hear her emotion-choked words with quite the same sense of belief since her ill-advised support of author James Frey and his fictionalized memoir, A Million Little Pieces. Winfrey's highly theatrical recantation last week notwithstanding, her one-time defense of the book as a work of "emotional truth" - long after she knew about the lies in it - makes one wonder.
But any questions of Winfrey's credibility are small potatoes in the cultural feast served up by Gates as host and executive producer of African American Lives - especially in the final hour when folks who grew up thinking they had Native American ancestors found it to be nothing more than a false family tale, while others who defined themselves totally as persons of color found deep European roots.
Confronted in the final hour of the series with DNA evidence about her ancestral past that could change the way she sees herself, Lawrence-Lightfoot, the Harvard sociologist, says that she is African-American because that is the group with whom she has chosen to identify herself - and, so, the DNA data doesn't matter, as far as she is concerned.
That is a very postmodern notion of identity that she voices, and some who define ethnicity purely as a matter of blood and genes might find it puzzling. The ultimate measure of the success of African American Lives is how understandable her point of view seems to others after seeing this series.
TV Land has done excellent black cultural history in such documentary series as African Americans in TV (2002). Don't be fooled into thinking That's What I'm Talking About - a three part series on "the role of blacks in American culture and society" - is in that league. It is a talk show - a host, four guests and two couches - with lots of hot air and aimless chatter during the first hour that was made available for preview. Wayne Brady serves as host for a conversation with comedian Paul Mooney, writer Toure and actors Diahann Carroll and Harry Belafonte. More of Carroll and Belafonte, and less of Mooney and Toure, would have been a better way to go.
That's What I'm Talking About airs at 10 tonight and Feb. 8 and 15 on TV Land.
African American Lives airs at 9 tonight and Feb. 8 on MPT (Channels 22 and 67) and WETA (Channel 26).