02 March 2011

That OTHER genealogy TV show--FACES OF AMERICA

      I am not going to join the chorus of genealogy bloggers chiming in about the recent episodes of WDYTYA (Who Do You Think You Are?). I would much rather review a show that was missed by a large portion of American family history researchers. I call it the "other" show because when I ask my audiences if they saw it, people often say, "Oh yeah, what was its name, that other show?" This "other" show premiered on PBS a year ago and is now available on DVD. In my humble opinion, this "other" show is what our quest for our roots is all about.
          Have you seen FACES OF AMERICA?  
       I was very puzzled by the number of family historians who watched WDYTYA but missed FACES OF AMERICA on public television. I think there are a few reasons why FACES was not seen by a wider audience, lack of big money sponsors among them. The advertising and tie-ins for WDYTYA have a much bigger budget. Plus, a short time before FACES aired, the host, Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., had been involved in an incident with the police that eventually involved President Obama. I wondered if his notoriety might have caused viewers to develop a preconceived opinion of the host.
     Professor Gates is superb in his role as host of FACES. He is warm and empathetic and intelligent. He takes a sensitive but frank tone when dealing with the complexities of ethnicity and race and history. As someone who walks a fine line lecturing about aspects of Irish history--including its religious and social and political controversies, plus the emotions such controversies engender in my audiences--I can attest to the difficulty of Gate's challenge and his success in meeting it..
     The program deals with the intertwined themes of genealogy, American history, and the immigrant experience. Where WDYTYA is a plodding narrative, FACES is a symphony that weaves the guests' genealogies into a search for what it means to be American, and for what it means to be descended from ancestors who left family and country, often forever, for life in a new land.
     Yes, the subjects whose genealogies are traced on FACES are famous people. But they are not all famous actors, some are well-known in other fields (you may not recognize all of the guests, I did not). Their reactions and emotions seem genuine (well, perhaps some more than others--I have a hard time trusting the reactions of actors on these genealogy programs). Some very startling family secrets are revealed, and some poignant family stories are recounted.
     My unanticipated reaction to the DNA segment illustrates how expertly Gates evokes emotion from the viewer. In the segment, Gates and his father are subjects of extensive DNA testing. If you are a family historian, you know how confusing and intricate explanations about DNA testing can be. If you are like me, your eyes glaze over and your head spins when shown a chart of T's and Eves and Y's and what-nots.Well, FACES has the most understandable explanation of DNA testing I have heard, but that is not what is remarkable about the segment. What is remarkable is the emotion evoked when Gates and his father view their DNA analysis. Yes, emotion! When they are shown a chart which reveals the DNA of Gate's late mother, the reaction of the men is so intense that I felt tears welling in my own eyes.
      C'mon--I was almost crying over a DNA analysis! Can a genealogy program be any better crafted than that?

    First, I want to make clear that I am not associated with FACES OF AMERICA or PBS in any way.
    The PBS website has information on buying the DVD. Other sources also carry the DVD. The PBS site has short videos and some of the episodes you can view free: