Craig White's Literature Courses

Critical Sources

Notes from

Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

In Search of Our Roots: How 19 Extraordinary African Americans Reclaimed Their Past (2009)

& Faces of America: How 12 Extraordinary People Discovered Their Pasts (2010)

Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
b. 1950, West Virginia

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. In Search of Our Roots: How 19 Extraordinary African Americans Reclaimed Their Past. NY: Crown, 2009.

Introduction: Family Matters

5 But I can remember, too, that searching for my ancestry was always a fraught process, always a mix of joy, frustration, and outrage, as the reconstruction of their history—individually and collectively—must always be for any African American. I knew I had white ancestors. My father was clearly part white, and his father looked like a not-so-friendly version of Casper’s grandfather. . . . I wanted to learn the names of both my black and white ancestors. . . . But there was always a problem with making progress in this search. If you’re black, and have tried to trace your roots, surely you know it well: The problem was slavery; the institution of slavery—more correctly, the people who created it so perversely, designed it to destroy any possibility of maintaining the family ties necessary to tracing one’s ancestry, / 6 through the deviously brilliant act of obliterating our family names, our surnames.

6 For us, for those of us descended from the 455,000 Africans who arrived in this country directly from Africa and indirectly from the Caribbean as slaves—80 percent of whom had arrived here by 1800, 99.7 percent by 1820—it was the “trace-ability,” as it were, that the evil genius of slavery sought to take away from us on both sides of the Atlantic, making us fragmented and not whole, isolated, discrete parts, not pieces of fabric stitched together in a grand pattern, like some living, breathing, mocha-colored quilt.

8 . . . the vast majority of us can trace at least one line of our family back to the 1870 census, which was the first census taken after the Civil War and is thus the first census in which all our ancestors appear as people, as citizens with two names, as opposed to property, with no names.

9 The roots of African American family trees extend only so far as the shores of the Atlantic Ocean. No farther. That’s what the absence of a paper trail was designed to accomplish.

10 Lost until recently, that is. In the past decade, remarkable developments in DNA testing and the retrieval and digitalization of archival records have made it possible for us to begin to trace our families back further through American history and, then, ultimately across the Atlantic. For the first time since the seventeenth century, we are able, symbolically at least, to reverse the Middle Passage. . . . With cells collected from the insides of our mouths, geneticists can extract small sections of our DNA. The bases of the acids within them form distinctive sequences know as haplotypes, which can then be compared to DNA samples taken from other people around the world. A match means that we’ve found someone with whom we share a common ancestor. And back in Africa, scientists have spent several decades gathering such samples from tens of thousands of Africans. So an exact match between an American’s DNA and an African’s DNA reveals a shared ancestor, and possibly a shared ethnic identity, that has been lost for centuries.

12 Restoring the stories of the lives of the members of our extended families can directly transform the way that historians reassemble the larger narrative of the history of our people.

12 . . . perhaps the surprising secret of African American genealogy is that every aspect of every family story, no matter how seemingly trivial or insignificant, can be a revelation that reshapes how we understand the entire sweep of the black experience in America.

Prefatory Notes on the African Slave Trade

16 Though the practices of slave owners varied, sometimes significantly, in different eras and in different states and in different times, slavery was, almost everywhere, a systemic effort to rob black human beings of their very humanity itself—that is, of all the aspects of civilization that make a human being “human”: names, birth dates, family ties, the freedom to be educated and to worship, and the most basic sense of self-knowledge and continuity of generations within one’s direct family.

17 Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database . . . a compilation of the records kept by shipping companies involved in the slave trade. It offers detailed information on 34,941 transatlantic slave-trading voyages that occurred between 1514 and 1866. Compiled under the direction of David Eltis, with the collaboration of Stephen D. Behrendt, Monolo Florentino, and David Richardson, it is the largest uniform, consolidated database of its kind in the world.

According to the database, before the slave trade ended in the United States, approximately 455,000 Africans were brought here against their will, 389,000 directly from Africa, and another 66,000 from the Caribbean, according to Greg O’Malley. Meaning that of the 12.5 million Africans taken from Africa and shipped across the Atlantic in slavery, only a tiny portion—less than 4 percent—were brought to this country (the remainder, of course, went to the Caribbean and Latin America). Of the 12.5 million Africans who left Africa, 10.7 million arrived in the Americas between 1501 and 1867. For most black Americans—about 90 percent of those of us living in the United States today—these 455,000 Africans are the basis of our ancestral gene pool. They are the core source of what are now more than 35 million African American citizens.

18 In fact, more than half of us had ancestors living in the United States by the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The black presence is as old as America itself.

19 Fifteen hundred languages are spoken on the African continent today. But the ancestors of the African American people are surprisingly localized. Linda Heywood and John Thornton have recently estimated that about fifty ethnic groups in Africa primarily made up the body of slaves who became the ancestors of the African American people.

20 Over the years the blending of their different ethnicities created the rich mixture—the pan-African identity—that is African American culture today. . . . There were also, of course, interracial mixtures with whites and with Native Americans—over half the African American people today have at least one European great grandfather, while that figure for a Native American great-grandparent is much, much less, amounting to only about 5 percent—and all this intermixture contributes to who we are today when we describe ourselves as “African Americans.”

20 5 percent of African Americans have at least 12.5 percent Native American ancestry (equivalent of one great-grandparent).

21 58 percent of African Americans have at least 12.5 percent European ancestry (equivalent of one great-grandparent).

21 19.6 percent of African Americans have at least 25 percent European ancestry (equivalent of one grandparent).

21 1 percent of African Americans have at least 50 percent European ancestry (equivalent of one parent).

21 2.7 percent of European Americans have at least 12.5 percent Native American Ancestry (equivalent of one great-grandparent).

21 Less than 1 percent of European Americans have at least 12.5 percent West African ancestry (equivalent of one great-grandparent).

21 After Nigeria and Brazil, the African Americans living in the United States constitute the third-largest group of black people in the world.

37 Well over half of all African American people have a white ancestor. And while some are bothered by it, in my experience most, like Maya, are not, which is, I think, an interesting indicator of how willing we are as a people to accept the racial complexity of our family histories rather than to pretend to some sort of claim of African purity or embrace embarrassment at how mixed our genetic makeup actually is.


Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. Faces of America: How 12 Extraordinary People Discovered Their Pasts. NY: NYUP, 2010.

1-2 After I joined the rest of America in watching Alex Haley’s monumental Roots miniseries in 1977, you might say that I developed a serious case of “roots envy.”

2 . . . the science of genetics could do for all African Americans that which Alex Haley had done for himself: effectively reverse the Middle Passage to recover every black family’s long-lost ancestral origins on the African continent. To say that I was excited by this possibility is an understatement.

4 [Quincy Jones’s] interest in genealogy traced back to Alex Haley: Quincy had scored the music for Roots, and the two had become close friends.

5 . . . fully 35 percent of all other African American men can also trace their paternal ancestors, their Y-DNA, to European men who impregnated an African American female, most probably in the context of slavery.

5 It turns out that the four or five “races” that scholars postulated back then have absolutely no basis in biology. But it also turns out that genetic variations among individuals are real and biologically identifiable—and are infinitely more complex than anyone could have imagined in the eighteenth century.

6 In America, who we are is often associated with what we do. I make my living studying and teaching the history and culture of people of African descent. And that’s why I was shocked to learn that, though I don’t look like it, I’m actually quite a lot more white, genetically, than I am black. As a matter of fact, I am 56 percent European and only 37 percent African—with a sprinkle of Asian / Native American ancestry (7 percent), much to my cousins’ collective delight. My father’s complexion is so light that his African ancestry is barely detectable; it turns out that his admixture is 74 percent European, 21 percent African, and 6 percent Asian / Native American. And the rest of my family is a multiracial, multiethnic, multicultural gumbo: black and white, African and European, Irish and Yoruba, Puerto Rican and Danish, Native American and Asian. We’re the melting pot that is America, in miniature.

7 . . . America is a giant ethnic mishmash—a series of interlocking families, like my own, that are so thoroughly blended that any notion of racial purity is naïve at best and a dangerous intellectual error at worst.

8 Between 1820 and 1924, no fewer than thirty-six million people migrated to the United States. The tide hasn’t stopped: more immigrants arrive every day. As a matter of fact, between 1990 and 2000, more Africans migrated to the Untied States than the 450,000 of our African ancestors who came here involuntarily during the entire history of the slave trade.

8 Yet immigrants themselves have routinely faced discrimination, outright hostility, and sometimes severe hardships on the way to earning the right to call themselves Americans.