Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Faces of America

It’s not often that I watch a TV show and afterward exclaim, “Wow! That was awesome.” It’s even rarer that this happens and the mother agrees with me. But that was the case last night after stumbling upon “Faces of America,” a PBS series exploring the genealogy of 12 “famous” Americans.

As the show drew to a close – and I even popped the cable guide up to make sure that it really only was on for an hour – I found myself wanting more. Luckily, there is more every Wednesday through March 3. While this first show touched on all 12 lives to be featured, it focused on three: director/actor Mike Nichols, Olympic gold medalist Kristi Yamaguchi, and cellist Yo-Yo Ma. (You can catch it online here if your local PBS station doesn’t rerun it.)

Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates presents each guest with a “book of life” featuring highlights he unearthed within their respective family trees. For Nichols, this includes photos of great uncles who were slain by the Russians as revolutionaries. For Yamaguchi, it was a newspaper clipping announcing the 1943 birth of her mother in a U.S. Japanese internment camp – an event that occurred while Yamaguchi’s grandfather was serving with the U.S military. How’s that for irony?

And speaking of irony … Yes, it’s the Henry Gates that had the run-in with Cambridge, Mass., cops last summer while “breaking into” his own home with the help of a cabbie after finding the door jammed. (Oddly enough, the incident occurred as Gates returned home from China where he’d been researching Ma’s family tree.)

I’m not going to participate in a racial debate on this incident. Feel free to do that on another site. But if you watch this series, you’ll notice in the initial minutes of the first episode that Gates points out that through historical research and DNA evidence, he discovered that he is “more white” than black. Just bear that in mind. That’s all I’m saying.

If you’ve been reading a while, you know I’m an avid (sometimes) genealogist. Winter is usually the time that my family research thrives but not so this year. The historical trails have grown as cold as this season’s temperatures. But watching shows like this stokes those fires anew. I teared up (yes, I’m a sap for these things) watching the expressions of the participants seeing the photos, ship manifests and newspaper clippings for the very first time. Glimpsing relatives they never knew and in some cases, never heard of.

I am never prouder of this country than when I hear these stories of people who overcame such incredible odds just to come here. Whether it was to escape persecution, starvation, or just the hope of a better life, they made the boldest of strides that laid the foundation for this country. And those people come in a rainbow of colors, each contributing a unique perspective and cultural significance that make the United States different from any other country on the planet.

We are a nation of immigrants. And I think that's just cool as hell.

It makes me want to dust off my folders of research on my own “mutt” line that includes a little bit of everything including Irish, English, French, German, Scottish, and Native American blood. I’m proud of that heritage and feel particularly privileged to know as much about it as I do. I want to know more! A first-generation American in my tree and her Irish-born mother, just some of the colorful characters in my lineage I'm privileged to know a little about though both were long gone before my time.
In the meantime though, I’ll live vicariously through this PBS special. Part 2 airs tomorrow night.