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Stars search for their roots on PBS series
Publication: Lansing State Journal
Author: Mike Hughes
Date: March 24, 2012
Decades ago, the Marsalis kids had their notion of fun.
Branford, 13, and Wynton, 12, would find white Marsalis families in Summit, Miss.
“We’d knock on the door and say, ‘We’re doing our family tree and I think we’re related,’” Branford Marsalis recalled semi-sheepishly, “ just to watch them go, ‘Oh no, there must some mistake!’”
In truth, he knew they weren’t related to these people – “we were just being jerks” – but he also knew there were whites somewhere on the family tree. “In the hot Louisiana sun, when I … saw little blond hairs on my arm, I thought, ‘Ahh, that’s not supposed to happen.’”
The search for answers is at the core of “Finding Your Roots,” Henry Louis Gates’ new PBS series. It reflects something that has drawn Gates since the 1960 funeral of his grandfather. ra“He was so white, we called him ‘Casper’ behind his back,” he said. “So you can imagine how white he looked dead.”
Gates,then 9, began interviewing his parents about family history. Now, more than a half-century later, he’s found that most black families are (like his and Marsalis’) mixed.
“We’ve been sleeping together from the beginning of the country,” Gate said. And before that. “New DNA stuff shows the Homosapiens were sleeping with Neanderthals.”
Race is only one part of his new series; nine of the 25 people profiled are African-American. It is, however, dominant in the opening week, which features:
• U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Georgia), “who wept more than anybody,” Gates said. This man – who had risked his life to fight for the right to vote in the 1960s – learned that his great-great-great-grandfather, a former slave, had voted a century earlier.
• Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark. In a 58-page memoir, his grandfather recalled being told by his mother that his father was a local doctor in Columbia, La. Through old records and DNA tests, Gates said, “we got the white descendants of this (doctor) to fly up from Louisiana (for) a family reunion.”
• Harry Connick Jr., the jazz star. As a kid, he said, he wanted to be fat and black; he was neither.
• And Marsalis, his friend and fellow musician. He and Connick, he said, may have been influenced less by family roots than by New Orleans. “It’s one of the few cities I’ve ever been to where tradition isn’t a bad word in music …. You grew up hearing songs that were 75 years older than you were.”
Some family history needs to be revised, he said. Yes, he’s heard that his dad (Ellis Marsalis, a jazz pianist who taught Connick and others) is from a musical lineage; his dad seems to ascribe to that. Marsalis said, “no matter how many times you try to tell him it’s not the truth.”
In truth, he said, New Orleans has “50 or 60 musicians who are the fourth- or third-generation musicians in their family.” Ellis, by comparison, had no musicians before him; the musical roots are actually much stronger on Branford’s mother’s side.
And what about those blond hairs? Tracing Marsalis’ roots, Gates said, led to “this German man who lived openly with a black woman and they had seven children … and they lived happily, unmolested in racist New Orleans.”
Once open and integregated, New Orleans had been adopting harsh laws. Still, the blending of the races was always known. “The great thing about being from a place like Louisiana,” Marsalis said, “is that, unlike other states, there aren’t all of these secrets.”
And now – with DNA, PBS and Henry Louis Gates – there are even fewer secrets.