African American Lives
Genre Documentary
Directed by Leslie Asako Gladsjo
Graham Judd
Jesse Sweet
Jack Youngelson
Presented by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Country of origin  United States
No. of series 2
No. of episodes 8
Producer(s) Leslie Asako Gladsjo
Graham Judd
Jesse Sweet
Jack Youngelson
Production company(s) thirteen WNET
Kunhardt Productions
Inkwell Films
Original channel PBS
Original run February 2006 – February 2008

African American Lives is a PBS television miniseries hosted by historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr., focusing on African American genealogical research. The family histories of prominent African Americans are explored using traditional genealogic techniques as well as genetic analysis.

Gates has written an associated book, In Search of Our Roots: How 19 Extraordinary African Americans Reclaimed Their Past, which was published in early 2009.

African American Lives[]

The first miniseries aired in February 2006 and included research into the ancestral lineages of nine prominent African Americans: performers Whoopi Goldberg, Quincy Jones, Oprah Winfrey, sociologist Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, physician Ben Carson, astronaut and physician Mae Jemison, Chris Tucker and pastor T. D. Jakes. The miniseries has four episodes: "Listening to our Past", "The Promise of Freedom", "Searching for Our Names", and "Beyond the Middle Passage". The series featured the geneticists Rick Kittles and Mark D. Shriver.

African American Lives 2[]

African American Lives 2 premiered in February 2008, again hosted by Gates. This second set of episodes traced the ancestry of performers Morgan Freeman, Tina Turner, Tom Joyner, Chris Rock, Don Cheadle, theologian Peter Gomes, athlete Jackie Joyner-Kersee, poet Maya Angelou, Bliss Broyard (the daughter of writer Anatole Broyard), and publisher Linda Johnson Rice (the daughter of publisher John H. Johnson.) In addition to the more publicly known guests, Kathleen Henderson, a college administrator, was selected from more than 2,000 applicants to have her family history researched and to have DNA testing. The show continued the genealogical research into Gates's ancestry, which was found to be more than half European, including at least one male ancestor who fought in the American Revolution. Gates gave a speech when he was inducted into the Sons of the American Revolution. The four episodes of this miniseries are "The Road Home", "A Way Out of No Way", "We Come From People", and "The Past Is Another Country".


Due in part to a centuries-old history within the United States, historical experiences pre- and post-slavery, and migrations throughout North America, the vast majority of contemporary African Americans possess varying degrees of admixture with European ancestry. There is popular belief that a majority of African Americans also have Native American ancestry, but it may be much less frequent.[1][2]

With the help of geneticists, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. put African American ancestry in these terms:

  • 58 percent of African Americans have at least 12.5 percent European ancestry (equivalent of one great-grandparent);
  • 19.6 percent of African Americans have at least 25 percent European ancestry (equivalent of one grandparent);
  • 1 percent of African Americans have at least 50 percent European ancestry (equivalent of one parent); and
  • 5 percent of African Americans have at least 12.5 percent Native American ancestry (equivalent to one great-grandparent).[3]

Critics suggested the program did not fully acknowledge or inform guests (and the audience) that not all ancestry may show up in the tests.[4][5] The genetic tests done on direct paternal or maternal line evaluate only a few ancestors among many. Ancestral information markers (AIM) must also be done to form a more complete picture of a person's ancestry.[4] For instance, MtDNA testing is only of direct maternal ancestors. Unless other ancestry is evaluated, a person may miss a paternal line's connection to Europe. This gives a false impression that the person has little heritage of another ethnic group. AIM markers are not as clearly defined for all populations as suggested, and depend on data still being accumulated. Historic populations migrated, which also influences results.[4] Particularly, critics note that genetic analysis is incomplete related to Native Americans, and new genetic markers for these populations may be identified.[4][5]


  1. ^ Estimating African American Admixture Proportions by Use of Population-Specific Alleles
  2. ^ Population structure of Y chromosome SNP haplogroups in the United States and forensic implications for constructing Y chromosome STR databases
  3. ^ Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. In Search of Our Roots: How 19 Extraordinary African Americans Reclaimed Their Past, New York: Crown Publishing, 2009, pp.20-21.
  4. ^ a b c d Duster, Troy (2008). "Deep Roots and Tangled Branches". Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved 2008-10-02. 
  5. ^ a b "Genetic Ancestral Testing Cannot Deliver On Its Promise, Study Warns". ScienceDaily. 20 October 2007. Retrieved 2008-10-02. 

External links[]

This page uses content from the English language Wikipedia. The original content was at African American Lives. The list of authors can be seen in the page history. As with this Familypedia wiki, the content of Wikipedia is available under the Creative Commons License.