But then she grew quiet, leaned forward and stared at the page.
“Oh, this is so deep,” she said in a subdued voice after a moment, shaking her head at the intensity of the emotion she was feeling.
No doubt about it, “Finding Your Roots” is deep. I think it is one of the deepest and wisest series ever on television.
Outside of “Sesame Street,” I don’t think there is a series in the history of PBS that so perfectly fulfilled the founding vision in the 1960s for public television to use the inherent entertainment capacity of the medium to educate millions of Americans about the histories and cultures of our nation and the world.
I rank “Finding Your Roots" second to “Sesame Street,” because I am one of the critics who believes that children’s show was one of the driving forces in helping transform America from apartheid to multiculturalism. In showing and celebrating a multicultural world to several generations of young children, it made that vision of society the new normal to them as they grew into adults.
But just as “Sesame Street” took a cultural negative — young children’s fondness for TV commercials — and used that formula to teach letters and numbers, “Finding Your Roots” takes our addiction to celebrity and use that interest to teach us about our past
And it is not just any history. It is a history that includes an ongoing discussion of slavery, the part of our national past that dominant culture had long minimized or tried to ignore altogether. On “Finding Your Roots," it is treated as a central narrative of American history from before the founding of the nation to today.
Some viewers who tune in looking to satisfy their appetites for facts about a favored celebrity’s life, suddenly find themselves in, say, 18th and 19th Century Virginia hearing about some of the harsh and horrible facts of slavery that they should have been taught in school. Some of the celebrities get schooled by Professor Gates, a Harvard historian, on slavery as well. Quite a few wind up in tears as they think it about it not as an abstraction, but as something personal and concrete that affected newly discovered ancestors.
In an episode from Season 4 that was part of a binge session I had last weekend, actor and comedian Maya Rudolph suddenly found herself awash in tears after seeing one of her ancestors listed as a 5-year-old male on his owner’s slave schedule in 1860 Virginia.
“You don’t think of details,” she said. “How can you? You don’t have them. And then I see that 5, and I think of my daughter.”
“And to think you’d have no prospect of being free,” Gates said.
“I just can’t imagine,” Rudolph said. “How can you? How can you imagine anything like that?”
One of the most powerful moments from Season 4 came with musician Amir “Questlove" Thompson, leader of the house band on NBC’s “The Tonight Show,” after finding out that his African ancestor arrived on what is believed to be the last ship of the African slave trade.
“What’s it feel like to learn all this ― to name and see on a map the very place in Africa that your family comes from?" Gates asked. “And to know the circumstances?”
“Man, all types of emotions are running through my head,” said Thompson. “I feel sad. I feel angered. I feel confused. I feel lucky.”
At the end of the hour, the leader of a band named “The Roots” spoke about feeling “complete” in a way he never had before taking this journey into his past.
A major element of the success of the series is the performance of Gates as guide on these hour-long TV sojourns into celebrity histories. His tremendous knowledge of American history constantly lifts the show beyond the particulars of the celebrity’s ancestral arc into the larger currents of the national and sometimes international past. And yet, Gates delivers all that context and historical synthesis in a conversational, even colloquial manner, perfectly pitched to the medium.
One of my favorite endings to an episode came with comedian and actor Amy Schumer when Gates informed her that her DNA test revealed a relative she never knew she had.
He asked if she wanted to meet him, and she said sure.
“OK, fasten your seat belt,” he said asking her to turn the page on her book of ancestors to meet the new relative.
The picture on the page she came to was that of Gates.
“Stop,” Schumer said. “Wait, stop. Is this a joke?”
Not at all, Gates said, explaining that Schumer and his father share “an identical stretch of DNA," which makes Gates and her cousins.
“Has this ever happened to you before?” she asked.
“Not with a white person,” Gates said bursting into laughter and reaching across the table for her to give him a high five.
It was a fun moment especially when Schumer called Gates “Cuz” and asked if she could “borrow some money.”
But underneath the playfulness, it is a reminder of how fluid identity is and how many of our pasts have moved across boundaries some would like to think of as fixed.
Those are both profound concepts that have been obscured, minimized or ignored by many dominant-culture histories, which are more concerned with maintaining power for certain groups than telling the truth about our pasts.
The message of this series is not that we are all the same, not by a long shot. “Tracing Your Roots” is clear about the disproportionate suffering by members of some groups, as well as the advantages afforded those of other groups in this land of so-called equality.
But the series does serve as an antidote to the extreme polarization of American life today with too many of us defining ourselves as members of socially constructed tribes, like Democrats and Republicans, and refusing to listen or talk across the self-drawn lines that separate us. If there is one thing that “Finding Your Roots” shows it is that even biologically-drawn lines were constantly being crossed in American history and many of the best moments and results in the lives of our ancestors and the nation came about as a result of those crossings. There are far more connections among us than most media would have us believe today.
That message is what drew me back recently to binge episodes that I had not seen from previous seasons. At the end of too many long days of trying to sort through disinformation, conspiracies and political warfare on cable TV and social media, I needed to hear the truths Gates tells about our national and individual pasts.
After tracing Latifah’s ancestor Juggy Owens’ birth back to 1766, Gates says to his guest, “That’s before the United States is the United States ... Does that make you feel more American?”
“You know, in this climate we’re in, people are like, ‘Man, I’m moving to Canada,’ or, ‘I’m moving here," Latifah said. "And I’m like, ‘I’m not going anywhere. This is my country. My family helped build this nation ... We are going to stay here and we are going to fight and do what we need to do to make it right.’”
Latifah, whose legal name is Dana Elaine Owens, said she always felt that way, but after seeing the historical evidence of Juggy Owens’ life, it has a “whole new meaning” for her.
“Now I see this really is my country,” she said.
“This land is your land,” Gates replied.
“This land is my land,” he and Latifah said in perfect harmony.