The 2006 PBS documentary African American Lives was justly praised by many, most notably The New York Times, which called the show “the most exciting and stirring documentary on any subject to appear on television in a long time.” In the program, Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. introduced many, particularly black Americans, to new ways of discovering one’s family history through groundbreaking genetic analysis, which was used to trace back the roots of black celebrities such as Chris Tucker and Whoopi Goldberg.
Gates, and the series, are back this month for African American Lives 2, airing Feb. 6 and 13 on PBS and PBS HD. As one might expect, research has advanced in the two years since the last installment, so Gates comes armed with even greater tools at his disposal to help trace the family histories of a new batch of celebrity participants: poet Maya Angelou, author Bliss Broyard, actor Don Cheadle, actor Morgan Freeman, theologian Peter Gomes, publisher Linda Johnson Rice, radio personality Tom Joyner, athlete Jackie Joyner-Kersee, comedian Chris Rock, and rock legend Tina Turner. Gates also turns his research eye on his own history, and for the first time looks at the roots of an “ordinary” American — Kathleen Henderson, who was selected from more than 2,000 applicants.
Each night features two hourlong episodes, which look at guests’ lineages through various moments in U.S. and world history. Among the remarkable family tales are the tragic story of Joyner’s great uncles, who were executed in 1915 for a crime that evidence suggests they did not commit; Rock’s great-great-grandfather, a black Civil War veteran who was twice elected to the South Carolina state legislature; and Cheadle’s great-great-grandparents, who, as Chickasaw Freedmen, struggled to build lives for themselves in Oklahoma after being excluded from the tribal rolls.
Once again, this is essential viewing for anyone interested in genealogy, history, or powerful stories of humanity.
Episode 1: The Road Home (Feb. 6)
This first part focuses on participants’ ancestors in the early 20th Century. In addition to the story of Joyner’s great uncles, the episode also features Broyard, who lived her life unaware that her father, renowned New York Times critic Anatole Broyard, was a light-skinned black man who chose to “pass” as white. Bliss learned of her black roots upon her father’s death in 1990.
Episode 2: A Way Out of No Way (Feb. 6)
This episode continues tracing the guests’ lineages back through the late 1800s to the Civil War. Rock’s maternal great-great-grandfather and Cheadle’s ancestors are featured here.
Episode 3: We Come From People (Feb. 13)
The early years of the United States figure in this episode, which includes a riveting account of life in slavery by Morgan Freeman’s great-grandmother, discovered within the records of the Depression-era Works Progress Administration, and Peter Gomes’ ancestors, who were freed and supported by Quaker families in Virginia in the late 1700s.
Episode 4: The Past is Another Country (Feb. 13)
The final episode shows how DNA analysis has led to fascinating discoveries about the participants’ lineages. A groundbreaking study links Professor Gates himself to a powerful ancient Irish warlord, while evidence suggests that Gomes’ direct paternal line traces back to a Portuguese Jew who fled the country in the early 1500s to escape the Inquisition.
ALSO THIS MONTH
Several other notable programs also help celebrate Black History Month:
Pride — Showtime, Feb. 2. Terrence Howard stars in this rousing true-life story of a Philadelphia swim coach in the mid-1970s who faces racism in trying to land a coaching position, and instead transforms a group of trash-talking teenagers from the ghetto into a championship squad. Bernie Mac, Kimberly Elise and Tom Arnold costar in this inspiring drama.
Prince Among Slaves — PBS, Feb. 4 (check local listings). This special tells the forgotten true story of an African prince who was enslaved in Mississippi for 40 years before finally achieving freedom and becoming one of the most famous men in America. Mos Def narrates.
Third & A Mile: The Emergence of the Black Quarterback — ESPN2, Feb. 8. ESPN’s exploration into the plight of the African-American quarterback recounts the trials and tribulations that black players have been forced to endure throughout the history of the NFL and NCAA football. With appearances from legends such as Warren Moon, Randall Cunningham and Doug Williams, this insightful documentary chronicles the journey of these athletes, whose ascents to prominence were challenged by staunch racism and bigotry.
History Makers: Success — BET, Feb. 10. This unique collection of oral history features interviews with prominent history makers such as Terry McMillan, Isaac Hayes, Horace Julian Bond, Ossie Davis and many other influential blacks who have contributed to society and history.
39th NAACP Image Awards — FOX, Feb. 14. The annual ceremony honoring projects and individuals that promote diversity in the arts in television, recording, literature and motion pictures. Nominees this year include the films The Great Debaters and Pride; the TV shows Tyler Perry’s House of Payne and Everybody Hates Chris; and musical artists Seal and Kanye West.
Masters of American Music — Bluesland: A Portrait in American Music — BET J, Feb. 18. The blues is a celebration of joyful, complex, and compelling music built on self-expression and entertainment. This film explores the blues-with all its poetic irony, sly humor, eroticism and timeless power. Hosted by actor David Keith, “Bluesland” travels the expansive landscape of the music, tracing its roots from the beginning of the twentieth century through the Mississippi Delta to Louisiana, Texas, Kansas City and Chicago. The film includes memorable footage of some of the blues’ greatest players — Son House, Bessie Smith, Jimmy Rushing, Big Bill Broonzy, Sonny Boy Williamson, Muddy Waters, Joe Turner and T-Bone Walker.
Independent Lens: “Banished” — PBS, Feb. 19 (check local listings). This is the story of three counties that forcefully banished African-American families from their towns 100 years ago — and the descendents who return to learn a shocking history.
History Makers: Courage — BET, Feb. 24. Through the revealing personal stories of influential African Americans such as Nikki Giovanni, Vernon Jordan, Angela Davis, Harry Belafonte, and many others, viewers are shown the importance of following your own path and standing up for what you believe in despite the opposition or consequences.
Opera Noire — BET J, Feb. 24. BET J celebrates African Americans and their significant contributions to the Opera in this informative documentary examining the issue of race in Opera and Classical music. This special focuses on the outstanding careers of such great musicians like Paul Robeson, Marian Anderson, Leontyne Price, Jessye Norman and Robert McFerrin, the first black to appear at the Met. In addition, it will encompass a red carpet concert gala performance of selections from celebrated composers including Gershwin and noted black composers.
Say It Loud — ESPN, Feb. 24. A new, two-hour documentary on the impact of black athletes on the history of American sports.