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Finding Your Roots, The Preview and The Promise

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Finding Your Roots, The Preview and The Promise

By Yvonne J. Medley

 

 

 

 

S. Epatha Merkerson and Dr. Gates

Photo Credit: McGee, Ark Media

Finding Your Roots, The Preview and The Promise

By Yvonne J. Medley

Finding Your Roots, nurtured and narrated by Harvard Professor Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr., hit its fifth season last month. The series airs, Tuesday nights on PBS stations.

Early, this Black History Month, 2019, a near capacity crowd of people piled into the Lisner Auditorium of George Washington University in Washington, D.C. to lick their lips on a WETA-TV preview of FYR’s latest series. The event was held on Friday, February 8, 2019.

WETA President Sharon Percy Rockefeller, who graced the stage before Gates, told the crowd that she and Gates have known one another for 51 years. About Gates, she said that he fosters the, “gentle education of others.”

Also on the WETA menu was a scrumptious after-discussion, featuring film, stage and television actress S. Epatha Merkerson; Sirius XM radio host and civil rights activist Joe Madison, nicknamed, The Black Eagle; and the founder of The DNA Detectives, CeCe Moore.

 

 

 

 

Photo Credit: McGee, Ark media

Moderating the discussion, dishing out the literary and ancestral cuisine, of course, was Gates. Unearthed-lineage appetizers, belonging to Madison and Merkerson comprised the main course. Merkerson appeared in episode five, dubbed Freedom Tales. It aired, February 5. Madison will appear in episode 10, dubbed All in the Family. It will air April 9.

Gates’ next book, titled, Stony The Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and The Rise of Jim Crow (Penguin Random House), releases on April 2, 2019. Also look for a meaty, corresponding documentary, titled, Reconstruction: America After the Civil War.

The February 8, discussion poured out—intimate and at-ease—in front of nearly 1800 ravenous and grateful fans of FYR and PBS.

For African Americans such ancestral dig can behold a double-edged sword. Few blacks in this country would be surprised not to find their family’s lifeline entangled in the sediments of slavery. But film actor Don Cheadle, born in Kansas City, Missouri, got a surprise when he was the subject of Gates’ prior series, titled African American Lives 2 (airing 2006-2008).Yes, Cheadle correctly assumed that his descendants were once slaves, but he had not counted on the excavated fact that their slave owners were not white, but members of the Chickasaw Nation.

During that same series, viewers were ajar when they watched the usually bubbly and riotously funny comedian and actor Chris Tucker harbor a very serious demeanor. But that’s just what happened when Gates led Georgia-born Tucker on an ancestral-roots tour in Central Africa.

The goal of Gates’ shows is to engage and ignite others, especially youth, about the importance from whence they emerge. But why only celebrities? Many inquire.

During a 2006 NPR interview, Gates told journalist, Ed Gordon, “I wanted people to watch the series. That’s the short answer. So I wanted to get prominent African Americans for that reason because I wanted to seduce young African-American children, particularly inner city kids, into understanding the wonders of genetics and genealogical analysis. If you went into an inner city school tomorrow and we said, ‘today’s lesson is DNA, the double helix, discovered by Watson and Crick,’ people would say, ‘what time is recess, man? I want to get out of here.’ But if we say, like I did, ‘I’m going to swab Chris Tucker’s cheek, do his DNA analysis, and then take him to the Mbundu people in Northern Angola,’ who is not going to be interested in that?”

During the discussion, talking about the FYR’s series, Madison said, “It’s a combination of science, history [and] sociology.” And about Gates, who has authored 24 books, Madison said that he’s, “a national treasure.” The audience offered hearty applause.

During Madison’s segment, he discovers that the man, he thought was his father—wasn’t.     Madison, Ohio-born, had no one in his family to turn to for answers. His mother, the man who reared him and his real father, whom FYR uncovered, are all deceased.

Even though the research took five years to accomplish, Gates gave Madison the opportunity to have it not air. But The Black Eagle said to let it fly.

Madison shared with the Lisner audience about loaning $1500 to a nephew on his paternal side. “Now that he’s really not my nephew,” Madison joked that he was hopeful to get back his money, “before he sees the series.” The audience roared with laughter.

The mere fact that one’s ancestors survived the bare brutality of slavery begs the wondrous question: How in the world did my family line escape pure strangulation? For there is no doubt that many family lines succumbed.

Gates traced the Michigan-born Merkerson’s lineage back to Port Tobacco, Maryland, which happens to be about 20 miles from my home. Her ancestor, a slave named Patrick Hawkins, began the Merkerson’s family tree that spans centuries, miles, and incredulous tribulation. But it also shows the resolve of the human spirit.

“We’re all interested about where we come from,” said Merkerson. “Even as a kid, I was always curious,” she said. Finding out gave her a sense of belonging. It proved that her inner-strength was, “bred in the bones.”

To Merkerson, Gates said, “You had the oldest family tree, by name, of enslaved ancestors of any person who’s ever been in the series.” It was traced back to the 1750s to her fifth great grandfather.

Today, Southern Maryland is still home to a huge family bearing the Hawkins’ surname. In 2005, I covered a story about a Gordon Hawkins for The Washington Post.

At the time, the gifted baritone and Southern Maryland’s native son, shined in a Kennedy Center production of Porgy and Bess. Well, today, I think of him, and wonder.

FYR routinely digs at the genealogical bones of high-profile figures to lift the meat and marrow of their lineage. It tantalizes as it plows—and I might add—invites its viewers to vicariously live through the experience.

 

 

 

 

Photo Credit: McGee, Ark Media

Moore’s groundbreaking techniques for discovering and knitting together DNA have cracked high-profile criminal cases. “Remember the Golden State serial killer who was found?” Gates rhetorically asked the audience. “They used her [Moore’s] methodology to do it. And since May, she has solved 35 cold cases,” he said about the genetic genealogist. Gates added, “And one of the most pleasing and surprising developments since we first began Finding Your Roots is the growth of our use of DNA analysis to trace ancestors to whom we’re connected, but for whom there’s no paper trail.”

While covering the event, and capturing the principles in my camera, I fantasized—what if I had the opportunity for Gates to plow and dig, and assign Moore to unearth my husband’s paternal bloodline.

Soon we’re heading to New York, where we both grew up, to attend the birthday celebration of his second cousin.

Elder Duval Medley will be 83 years old. The surname, Medley, was his mother’s last name, and because I’m married to Robert Medley Sr., it’s been my last name for 42 years. Duval’s mother took to her grave, the identity of his father.

Duval and my husband’s father, Billy “Bill” Medley were first cousins. Their mothers were sisters. They were close in age and close like brothers—at least until Bill Medley’s questionable suicide in a Lynchburg, Virginia jail cell. He was in his 30s.

Bill was a warm and fun guy, relatives say, but alcohol could change him—especially if challenged. One night, while drunk, he got into a scuffle with local policemen. He got the better of them; and they vowed to get even.

Bill’s family feared for his life and urged him to flee Lynchburg—head back to New York—back to his estranged young wife and four small children. It took him a couple of days to get his man-pride stuffed in a suitcase, and head for the bus station. But his getaway wasn’t timely. The same two policemen caught up with him. Bill was arrested.

The identity of Bill’s father went to his mother’s grave as well. Bill’s surname, Medley, comes from his mother just like Duval’s. But the plot thickens. Both Medley sisters did day-work for white families. One of those white families was affluent in the area.

Family folklore portrays the sisters as heavy drinkers when not at work. We imagine that their minds and hearts needed to relieve heavy emotional loads. One of the sisters, Celesta, who was Duval’s mother was known to be steadily angry and cantankerous. But no one could get at the root cause.

“They went to their graves with secrets,” said Marilyn Holmes, a first cousin of Bill and Duval’s. Holmes, a writer and keeper of the family’s genealogical flame, lives in Madison Heights just outside of Lynchburg.

 

 

 

 

 

Photo Credit: McGee, Ark Media

During the FYR’s after-discussion, Madison said this about many black families, “You knew there was a secret, but you didn’t know what the secret was.” Madison also learned that his blood-grandfather was a victim of the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment that took place between 1932 to1972.

In black families, the discussion went on to convey, especially in the pre-civil rights era, children mostly knew not to question their elders. They simply went with the flow of family heritage and happenstance, and they did what they were told. Because, they knew that venturing out into a Jim Crow world—how they learned to behave could hang them in the balance of life or death.

After the FYR’s preview and meat-filled discussion, Gates, Merkerson, Madison and Moore lingered on the stage, greeting family members, friends, colleagues and fans.

One young woman, an audience member, who now stood at the base of the stage was actually hoisted up onto the stage so she could directly ask Gates the question she had been shouting from down below.

Awestruck, she asked, “So when are you going to create a lottery or something so you can look into the backgrounds of regular people?”

The answer, and perhaps a promise, from Gates was a smile.

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Yvonne Medley is a Staff Writer for The Urban Sentinel, an Author and Founder of the Life Journeys Writers Guild, Inc.