Tuesday, January 29, 2008

African American Lives 2

Review by Kam Williams

Headline: Black Luminaries Find Roots in 4-Part PBS Series

A year ago, Harvard Professor Henry Louis “Skip” Gates hosted a groundbreaking series on which he and eight other African-American icons explored their roots via a combination of genealogical and DNA research. The show was so successful, that PBS has brought Skip back along with eleven new recruits curious about their roots.
This go-round, the group of luminaries includes actors Don Cheadle and Morgan Freeman, poet Maya Angelou, Olympian Jackie Joyner-Kersee, DJ Tom Joyner, singer Tina Turner. Ebony/Jet publisher Linda Johnson Rice, fellow Harvard Professor Reverend Peter Gomes, comedian Chris Rock and belatedly-black author Bliss Broyard. Plus, there’s Kathleen Henderson, the contest winner picked from among over 2,000 entrants to have her history researched for the program.
If you remember the original show, then you are already well familiar with the format. Broken down into four episodes, the first focuses on each person’s 20th Century relatives. Episode Two traces Civil War era ancestors, while the third goes all the way back to the Colonial Period. DNA testing is introduced during the final episode, which is when the participants learn what per cent African, Asian, European and Native American they are. Some then venture to their respective homelands.
Highlights include Tom Joyner’s learning of the legal lynching of two of his grandmother’s brothers for the murder of a white man, the reading from a slave ship’s log about captives’ deaths from sickness and suicide, and Ms. Angelou’s heartfelt insights about her strong connection to the Motherland, even in absentia when she wistfully reflects, “I don’t think you can ever leave home.”
Ironically, the most compelling moments revolve around Ms. Broyard, daughter of the late New York Times literary critic, Anatole Broyard. For, her light-skinned father passed for white from the time he moved to New York City in 1938 at the age of 17 until his death in 1990. So, growing up, she never knew she was part African-American.
Here, she is clearly uncomfortable as she struggles to grasp the meaning of her new identity, while wondering whether her father ran from his out of self-hatred or self-preservation. There is nothing culturally black about Bliss, making her inclusion a bit strange, except that it reminds us that there are undoubtedly millions of others like her, the difference being they are either ashamed or unaware of their African ancestry.
The show’s only low moments come courtesy of host Gates who is given to drawing baffling and bizarre conclusions such as when he inappropriately sums up a situation with: “Being black in America has never been about one’s color or facial features. It’s more a state of mind.” What?
Or how about another occasion where he fliply suggests that the damage slavery has wreaked upon the black family can be easily undone, saying: “DNA can begin to reverse the Middle Passage. Ain’t that something?” Otherwise, African American Lives 2 is as moving, informative and fascinating four hours as you can hope to find anywhere on the TV dial.

Excellent (4 stars)
Running time: 224 minutes
Studio: PBS

African American Lives 2 premieres on PBS at 9 PM (EST) on Wednesdays February 6 and 13. (check local listings)

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