In this latest 10-part series, Gates explores the genealogical and genetic history of a diverse group of people, from entertainer Harry Connick Jr. and Pastor Rick Warren to former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Brown University President Ruth Simmons. There are less famous people, but the famous get you hooked for the rest.
As I wrote about the earlier series, "African American Lives," which traced the African and slave roots of celebrities, including Oprah Winfrey and Chris Rock, Gates eviscerates any excuse for racism when he explores the lineage of the African Americans he interviews. That's because the whitest and blackest among us are actually a mix of genes formed out of a racial melting pot that includes ancestors who were both black and white.
It would be easy for Gates, whose political sympathies align with the Democratic left, to make these programs a partisan rant against historical and cultural injustice and the Republican Party. He avoids that temptation, letting the facts he and his team unearth speak for themselves.
Gates has become a modern-day Ralph Edwards. Edwards hosted a TV show in the '50s called "This is Your Life." On the show, childhood friends and long-lost relatives would surprise a famous guest and regale the audience with funny and heart-warming stories from the celebrity's past.
On Gates' program, those relatives are long dead. They are ghosts who have faded through generations of family history, leaving only stories handed down by word of mouth.
One of the most poignant moments in the current series is when Condoleezza Rice learns about her great-grandmother, Julia Head. Through stories told by her family, Rice learned that Head was the child of a slave and a white slave owner. After a search of courthouse records in Greene County, Ala., Gates discovers documents that reveal Julia Head was just four years old when she was sold for $450.
Shown the record of the sale, Rice soberly responds, "My great-grandmother was worth $450 to Mr. Head. Yeah, dehumanization. Just property."