Behind the Scenes with PBS’s Finding Your Roots

As a PBS cameraman recorded the scene, 23andMe scientist Mike Macpherson drew lines connecting photographs of about two dozen celebrities to one another while Henry Louis Gates Jr. riffed on what those links all mean.

The connections were sometimes direct family relations but more often than not each celebrity was connected through one, or two, or three others — cousins, related to each notable person through common ancestors.

Each celebrity will be a guest in the upcoming 10-week PBS series Finding Your Roots, in which Gates delves into the family histories of his guests tracing their stories back in time. When the paper records run out he turns to DNA tests.

After Macpherson sketched a seemingly unlikely link between one of the guests with European Jewish ancestry and another, a Muslim of Pakistani descent, Gates remarked:

“It reaffirms that we truly are all the sons of Abraham.”

“Indeed,” Macpherson said.

Mike Macpherson and Henry Louis Gates Jr. with producer Hazel Gurland.

The exchange happened recently at our headquarters in Mountain View where the Harvard scholar and cultural critic had come with a film crew to record some final scenes for his upcoming PBS series, which starts March 25th and runs until the end of May. Gates also interviewed 23andMe’s Senior Director of Research Joanna Mountain.

Both Mountain and Macpherson were consultants for the series and helped research the genetic genealogy of Gates’ guests on the show. Although they were being interviewed on camera to explain some of the complex science, Gates was often the one who boiled things down into easy to understand concepts. Or as Macpherson said during one break, “He could do this all a cappella.”

Watch Preview on PBS. See more from Finding Your Roots.

Gates wasn’t alone. Producers Hazel Gurland and Caitlin McNally helped direct the shoot and frame some of the questions, while a cameraman filmed the discussion. But it was clear that Gates was in charge, and he has a knack for finding the nugget that will captivate people, such as the idea that we are all interconnected genetically.

It’s not “six degrees of separation” that links any two people, but two or three degrees. And these are not social connections — a friend of a friend of a friend — but links through our DNA.

“Now that’s cool,” Gates said.

Joanna Mountain and Henry Louis Gates Jr.

If there’s a theme that links Gates’ body of work or at least his oeuvre on PBS — which includes Finding Your Roots, as well as African American Lives, Black in Latin America and Faces of America— it’s this notion that the distinct lines we’ve drawn to distinguish ourselves from others are much fuzzier than they seem.

As Mountain said, the closer two peoples were geographically the more they share genetically. Or as Gates mischievously likes to say:

“What it proves is that — no matter what the laws were in that day and time, no matter how societies tried to force sexual segregation — when the lights came down everybody was sleeping with everybody else.”

For Gates, a cultural historian, the author of 14 books and the director of Harvard’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research, the point is that racial and ethnic dividing lines are not as sharp as many assume. This is particularly true in the United States.

“It’s a tribute to the true triumph of American democracy,” Gates said at one point during the shoot with Macpherson and Mountain. “The diversity of our people, which we can measure through genealogy and genetics.”


  • alexis

    I love this show, I love its message, and I have to admit, it has truly changed my initial impression of Dr. Gates. Please keep doing this. I really believe this is making a significant contribution to the marketplace in terms of how we view ethnic origin, culture, and our connections to one another.

  • Alistair

    Hello Dr. Gates I’m looking forward to your show, this is a great thing you are doing. I would like to get more involved in projects like this. My family left India over 100 years ago and landed on Trinidad my birth country where my parents, grandparents, and some of my great grandparents were born. I’ve always wanted to know more about my roots and genealogy, and have made this an interest of mine which I started about 10 years ago. I will send out for a kit and who knows what they will find? I do look forward in seeing my results. In my situation I have been twice removed from India as my family migrated to Trinidad then America when I was a child. I’ve also heard many things like Indians don’t have a race, we are and ethnic group and there is only 4 human races African, Native American, European, and East Asian. See my point? so yes I am excited once again. I’ve seen a lot of your work and I’m very impressed. I also belong to 2 sites on Facebook called Indiasporas, and Haplogroups Y-Dna & Mtdna. I would like your views on East Indians and East Indians born outside of India…

  • DanielleB

    Watched the 2 shows last night. Mr. Gates, It was very interesting ! Look forward to watching the series…It really does show how we are interconnected.

  • kerry pay mann

    Hi Dr. Gates,

    My name is Kerry and I am 61 and disabled due to an allergy I inherited which is why I was told not to have any children and did not. I fell in love with the subject of history when I took my first in depth class about ancient Egypt in 7th grade. Ever since then at 13 I wanted to be a history teacher. It didn’t happen because in 1972 in California teachers were graduating after five years but there were too many and they could not get jobs. My father refused to pay for a degree and my not getting a job so he pulled me out of college and sent me to secretarial school.

    But I never stopped studying history and self taught myself on anything I could watch on TV or movies and now the internet to learn all I could.

    I just discovered another illness that was inherited severe obstructive sleep apnea that I just learned is connected to my very severe Allergic Rhinitis. I had allergy shots twice a week for 12 years just so that I could be half way normal to restore energy to my body because this allergy robs the body of energy and makes a person very tired. If I can get surgery for a tracheotomy to inset a permanent opening because of my OSA and I can get sleep again I plan on finishing my degree so that I can teach children how important it is to understand the importance of history and the effects and affects that decisions people make influence the world.

    I was just astonished by the history that Kyra had in her family and that she still didn’t know basic historical facts that I would assume everyone would have learned growing up.

    My grandmother on my mother’s side of my family traced her side as far back before the American Revolution so that in the 40′s she could join the DAR. My father’s side of the family from my great grand father has a Congressional Medal of Honor that he was given for saving a wagon train from Indians during the Civil War that hangs on our stair wall. We have a trunk full of pictures. Both sides of our family settled the territory of Montana and are one of the founders of the state. I on my own have gone back thru the internet and seen the info from the census back to 1870.

    My mother’s surname is from Germany and we think possibly Jewish, Mann and my father’s side is Pay. This is a very rare name that our father traced in Europe during his service with Patton in WWII and fought in the Battle of the Bulge and the 101st Airborne. I grew up with the pictures of the concentration camps because my father was also a Captain and was assigned to work with Margaret Burke White to document in pictures the concentration camps for the war record and afterwards.

    This is how I was taught about history, which was a love also of my father’s as well.
    I also live in the East Bay of San Francisco. Sadly, my father died at 59 before he could write the book that he wanted to regarding all his adventures in the 101st. He did write one book about a decade after the war regarding his group of the 101st Airborne.

    It is the personal stories of individual people that I always thought were the most interesting and are the events that if shown to the young people will show them that everyone has the ability to be and make history. Their individual actions today are what people in the future will call and shape what is called “History” for the next generation. What we do everyday matters to the people that come after us.

    Thank you for all your work!

    Kerry Mc Clain Pay Mann

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