Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates Jr.
US DVD: 17 Jul 2012
On election night 2012 as the cameras rested on Obama supporters, I was struck not only by the diversity of the crowd, but by the way it seemed almost staged. Over and over as the coverage switched from close-ups to long shots, each person seemed to always be standing next to someone who looked different then they did. I think I even spotted a couple of older white males in the mix, despite the statistical unlikelihood.
The look of the crowd had both the structure and randomness of a Jackson Pollock painting. It was the ol’ melting pot writ large. It was the latest image about what diversity really looks like in America, these days.
In the ‘70s Schoolhouse Rock cartoon, a bunch of animated people (none discernibly brown) actually dive into an America-shaped pot. You can’t quite tell if the burner is on, and though someone tried to make it look like a swimming pool and not a literal melting pot, tensions boiling over is the usual metaphor for social and racial unrest.
The election night crowd images did not indicate anything of the sort. They presented the sense of a unified front, a true collective.
The pundits quickly rolled out the demographic make-up of Obama voters, though the idea of their coalition seemed to crush the promise of demographics as a meaningful category. They were collected under a giant blue umbrella. The white-faced “everyman” was gone, now we had what seemed to be the “everybody” as his empowered replacement.
The ecstatic aftermath of the 2008 election boasted a similar optimism when the press bandied about that nonsense term “post-racial”. There seemed to be a belief for a little while that it kind of meant something. That we were living in times that were “after” racism. Of course, that term quickly lost any reasonable sense of reality—most especially for those whose lived experiences continued to encounter present-tense racism.
One of the most prominent examples of racial conflict’s continuance, despite Obama’s 2008 election, was made visible during the “beer summit”, when Obama sat down with Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (preeminent black scholar) and the white cop who arrested him for ostensibly breaking into his own home. [Henry Louis Gates Jr. TheRoot.com 30 July 2009]. They all shared beers on the White House lawn while the press snapped photos. The moment became a promise about redemption and possibility. Of course, shortly after that Representative Joe Wilson (a white guy) screeched “you lie” at the President during a joint speech to congress.
Gates recently hosted a PBS series Finding your Roots, which at first seems a staid foray into ancestry and genealogy (zzzzzzzz). The show is actually a Punk’d style update of This is Your life, and makes for highly watchable melodrama. Gates takes pleasure in the shock value of personal history, saying, “This is the book of your life” as he offers guest celebrities and luminaries serious-looking scrapbooks that contain surprising tidbits. In some cases, the revelations cause the guests to cry and Gates, like all drama-driven TV hosts, pulls on guest’s heartstrings until their tears flow, too.
In the segment on civil rights activist and hero, Congressman Jon Lewis, I noticed a tear track on the man’s cheek at the beginning of the episode, long before the moving disclosure that causes him to cry at the end. Like all “reality” television, Finding Your Roots is edited to pack an emotional wallop.
In Lewis’ case, he discovers that he is related to one of the first freed slaves who registered to vote. His own life’s work has been, in part, about voter registration. However, it’s the unadorned use of Jon Lewis’ mug shot, from an arrest during a peaceful protest during the civil rights era, that captures what the show is getting at. In the image, Lewis looks straight at the camera lens of his unjust captors. His look travels beyond that moment into the past and the future. Granted, it’s an image of dignity, but more so, it signals an identity, a human subject who is beyond this moment of violence. His gaze indicates that there is something in him that can never be arrested.
Gates’ project aims to make plain the connections between Americans across history. Digging into the archives of colonial America is really about showing the persistence of history, and connectivity, in the present day.
In another episode he punks married stars Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick, playing on the popular ‘90s party game “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon”, in which the actor connects to any celebrity you can think of. Turns out Kevin Bacon is also connected to (though by many more degrees than six) President Obama and one of the English kings. Then Gates really gets tough. Guess what, Kevin: your ancestors owned slaves. And your wife, Kyra? She’s your cousin! (But by several degrees removed or something). What do you make of them apples!?
I see Gates’ plan in the outing of the dirty laundry of early America. There is the strong likelihood that today’s nice whites and liberals were at some point related to someone who did something heinous and reprehensible. Maybe not even going back too far. In that sense, familial connection becomes the metaphor for broader connections across place and time and, thank goodness, how people can change.
Finding Your Roots demands a rethinking about both history and family. Of course, American history is famously whitewashed (check out the Schoolhouse Rock link above) erasing tedious details about American genocide, the founding fathers’ myriad racism and misogyny, the “building” of American wealth by black slaves and exploited immigrants, etcetera.
Gates presents abundant DNA data to make his cases. Guests receive a pie graph detailing their genetic make-up, though its rendered in ethnic terms (i.e., seven percent Asian, 46 percent European and so on). The DNA enables the melting, or rather, the merging of the inextricable double helix of American relations, though the pie chart seems to suggest that we can keep these various parts of us separate. Most Americans prefer tight demarcations around this stuff, as suggested by NBC’s electoral map spray-painted onto the ice rink in Rockefeller Center. The borders between red states and blue ones, frozen in place.
Another sequence concerns Newark mayor Cory Booker’s familial history. Booker is a black man, with light-skinned parents, as we see in multiple family photos. Gates remarks, “just look at you, in your eyes.” Booker’s eyes are blue. Gates makes plain the obvious interracial mixing that must hide somewhere in the man’s DNA. Gates uncovers a likely scandal generations back. Booker’s great-grandmother, a black woman was a teen, the white man (his great-grandfather) was the town doctor and the couple’s union was never openly acknowledged.
Gates reunites the Bookers with their white relatives, one of whom remarks with a strong southern drawl, “We’re all brothers and sisters under the skin.” This is a cogent statement, but Americans at large, even liberal ones, are not likely to have such a warm family reunion with those who are the “wrong kind” of diverse. You know, conservative red staters.
The multicultural blue state coalition is especially repelled by their mostly white “brothers and sisters” who hung out at Romney HQs on election night. The blog “White People Mourn Romney” provides the visual images for that demographic.
Of course, each image is hand-selected, but it provides a visual coda about blue diversity’s red opposition. You’ll see dour-faced white people of variant ages and class status, some wearing Uncle Sam regalia, all sad. Many young. Many blonde. You’ll see the white-skinned face of the opposition. And as the tone of the blog indicates, it’s also the face of the simple mind.
I’m not particularly worried that “White People Mourn Romney” is cruel—my concern is the way the blog makes diversity’s opposition an easy mark. Easy to know and recognize. Racism is dangerous in all of its forms, but its invisibility can be more or as pernicious as the stuff that’s out there in the open.
Are we really to believe that the DNA of racism, its persistence in institutions, in economies, in our segregated neighborhoods and especially in our popular films and TV shows, is only found within the realm of white male republicans? Call me cynical, but I believe there is still racism, a lot of it, in blue eyes and blue states, circulating, pulsing underneath.
The buzz word to emerge from this election is “diversity”. It’s a good story. In part because it poses an easily identifiable opposition: non-diversity.
Racism flows through America’s institutions, its infrastructures, its histories, ideologies, entertainments and idiosyncratic beliefs and it intermixes with good intentions. Diversity is striking and special at this moment because it has become visible and quantifiable, and because it gained agency through a collective voting bloc.
It’s time to take a closer look, a much more discerning examination of the faces that represent diversity in the wake of the recent presidential election. I do not believe that the light-skinned folks in the Obama crowd suddenly became hip to their own white privilege and to the ways that white privilege continues to operate in America. I think it’s been a long, slow lesson, and its changing the face of America.
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