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In Search of Our Roots: How 19 Extraordinary African Americans Reclaimed Their Past Hardcover – January 27, 2009

ISBN-13: 978-0307382405 ISBN-10: 0307382400 Edition: 1st
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In Search of Our Roots: How 19 Extraordinary African Americans Reclaimed Their Past + Finding Your Roots + Finding Your Roots: The Official Companion to the PBS Series
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. In this companion book to a two-part PBS series, Gates (Colored People) combines rigorous historical research with DNA analysis to recreate the family trees of African-American celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and Quincy Jones, as well as intellectuals, authors, comedians, musicians and athletes. Most of the subjects knew very little about ancestors as recent as grandparents, to say nothing of the information DNA results provided about their African and European ancestry. Gates connects gaps in ancestral knowledge to the fundamental evil of the American slave era, when slave owners and sellers purposely robbed black human beings of... all aspects of civilization that make a human being 'human': names, birth dates, family ties. Though the book relies too heavily on the notion that knowing one's ancestry leads to a better understanding of aspects of one's own personality, Gates proves in case after case that the past brings itself to bear on the present. In Chris Rock's case, had he known he had a 19th-century ancestor who had served as a South Carolina legislator, it might have taken away the inevitability that I was going to be nothing. (Jan.)
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From Booklist

*Starred Review* Following up on the PBS series tracing the genealogy of 19 prominent African Americans, Gates details the long and arduous efforts given the abrupt disruption of the Middle Passage and the secrets created by illicit race mixing during and after slavery. In each chapter, he highlights the personal family history of each subject and the particular challenges of tracing the family’s roots. Photographs and personal recollections of family stories add to the fascinating detail as Gates reveals to the subjects the results of searching genealogical records and using DNA testing to find their specific African origins. Among those whose roots he traced are Oprah Winfrey, Maya Angelou, Morgan Freeman, Tina Turner, Quincy Jones, and Peter Gomes, all of whom recall cherished family legends and intimate secrets. Gates puts each search in the broader context of African American and American history with an appreciation for the texture of the lives of ordinary people in contributing to the history of a nation and the complexity of race. The final chapter offers sound advice and insight on conducting genealogical research. Gates’ famous enthusiasm for history and African American genealogy is evident throughout this fascinating book. --Vanessa Bush

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Crown; 1 edition (January 27, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307382400
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307382405
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.6 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #720,585 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

3.8 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

20 of 21 people found the following review helpful By Richard Carlson on March 6, 2009
Format: Hardcover
I found this collection of genealogies and family histories of 19 African Americans to be both fascinating and moving. The family histories explore many different aspects of African American history and the black experience in the US, always tying individual stories to broader historical themes in a way that was generally successful, if sometimes repetitive and often lacking in detail. Therefore, despite the criticisms outlined below, I think this is a valuable book, and would certainly recommend it to anyone interested in African American history or genealogy.

That said, I was troubled by the factual errors and questionable interpretations that riddle the book. Gates is neither a historian nor a geneticist by training, so these lapses are perhaps unavoidable, but they detract from the book's overall impact. Perhaps most troubling is Gates's problematic use of DNA evidence. DNA evidence is particularly important in African American genealogy because it is almost always the only way descendants of slaves can find a direct, albeit generalized, connection to their African ancestry. But DNA test results are not as straightforward as Gates presents them. In the admixture test, for example, two siblings might have quite different results, despite having identical ancestors, because each sibling is the product of a different recombination of their parents' DNA. A brief section explaining exactly what DNA tests can and cannot tell us about our ancestry, and more careful wording when describing DNA test results, would have improved the book.

The book also contains several factual errors. Among the ones I found: the 1870 census doesn't list birthdays or family relationships (it lists ages, and family relationships were not recorded until the 1880 census) (p.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful By HRW on March 24, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Henry Gates' book, IN SEARCH OF OUR ROOTS, gives much more information than its accompanying PBS documentary, "African American Lives," and lays out the processes used to gather that information. This book is most relevant to those who have done or plan to do serious genealogy. It would also be of interest to those who are admirers of the people it covers. I have been obsessed with trying to trace my family into slavery and beyond for the past eleven years. I started this project in 1996 after reading Edward Ball's book, SLAVES IN THE FAMILY, because it struck a note which resonated with certain of my family's oral history.

I began my search before census data was digitized and searchable on the internet. Countless hours were spent going through microfilmed records and traveling to local archives. At that time DNA testing seemed only used to prove or negate paternity.

It's been said that black genealogy is very difficult but not impossible. Early mentors told me that if you cannot trace your people as humans, you must trace them as property. In this process you come to many dead ends where the line(s) just die out. Gates' book shows this and I found it to be a help in showing how his genealogists dealt with some of the barriers. Their use of conjecture was informative. For example, a simple thing such as searching for a slave owner in another state based on the last name of the former slave in the slave schedules had not occurred to me. If I did not have a record with the slave owner's name in the county where the ex-slave was living I assumed that there was no further information.

I am envious of the army of professional genealogists, historians and archivists that Henry Gates had at his disposal for this project.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By S. J. Snyder on February 25, 2010
Format: Hardcover
Gates, in his introduction, says that the "average" African American is likely to have X percentage of African bloodlines, Y percentage of European and Z of Native American. He then shows this with a number of famous African Americans, including building the case that an alleged American Indian ancestor in most black families' past lineage was likely actually a descendant of a black-white relationship.

The most fascinating story, in many ways, is that of Anatole Broyard and his daughter, Bliss. Anatole was born in Louisiana of mixed ethnic parentage but, at the age of 17, decided to start "passing" as white, eventually becoming a columnist with the New York Times. His daughter, Bliss, found out the truth from her white mother just before Anatole died.

Contra some people, Anatole was born and raise as "black," therefore he belongs in this book, precisely because of the issue of "passing."

The other interesting part is where Gates uses DNA analysis to connect the people of the book to specific African tribes and groups within their African heritage. That said, although he does make caveats at times, he may be claiming a bit too much for what DNA actually can, or cannot, tell us.

It's still a very good book overall, though.
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By Casual Reader on March 26, 2015
Format: Kindle Edition
I expected a book on genealogy research. While I enjoyed learning about the people included in this book, I did not think it was necessary to continually in almost every biography to berate the white race because of slavery. Yes, it was wrong but not all whites owned slaves. I know neither of my white parents nor my grandparents or great grandparents did. Before that I'm not positive. Thankfully he did recognize that much of the slave trade originated with African tribes capturing other Africans and selling them into slavery. It was not only a white trait.
I've run into some of the same brick walls that the people in the book did. It's extremely difficult for anyone to follow their ancestors before the 1850 census records and I was very interested to learn some of the methods Henry Louis Gates, Jr. used. I would have enjoyed the book more if he had concentrated on that instead of racial discrimination. It might have pulled the races together more instead of placing a wedge between them. We do have more traits in common than we have different.
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