Faces of America: How 12 Extraordinary People Discovered Their Pasts

Faces of America: How 12 Extraordinary People Discovered Their Pasts

Faces of America: How 12 Extraordinary People Discovered Their Pasts

Faces of America: How 12 Extraordinary People Discovered Their Pasts

Excerpt

Our complete ancestry is within us. The individual is a result of a long
chain of ancestors who are still present within us and exert power over
us. Men must go inside themselves, to be connected to what they origi
nally are.

— Gustav Landauer, Mike Nichols’s maternal
grandfather (1870 – 1919)

ON JANUARY 3, 2001, Dr. Rick Kittles, Assistant Professor of Molecular Genetics at the National Human Genome Center at Howard University, sent me a letter that would answer a question that had haunted me since I was nine years old: Where had my ancestors originated in Africa? To what “tribe” or ethnic group did my original African ancestors, who had come to this country most probably in the seventeenth or eighteenth century in the slave trade, belong? For my part, I had longed to learn the identity of my ancestors in this country since July 2, 1960, the day on which my grandfather Edward St. Lawrence Gates was buried in Cumberland, Maryland. Immediately after my grandfather’s funeral, my father showed my brother and me the obituary, dated January 6, 1888, of our oldest known ancestor on the Gates family tree, a nurse and midwife named Jane Gates. My greatgreat-grandmother, she had been born into slavery in 1819. The very next day, I bought a composition book, interviewed my parents, and began to write down the names, dates, and places of birth of all the family members they could remember. I could trace my mother’s side of the family, on her mother’s line, back to Lucy E. Clifford, born free in 1863. I remember seeing her on her deathbed in 1956. She was my great-grandmother.

After I joined the rest of America in watching Alex Haley’s monumental Roots miniseries in 1977, you might say that I developed a serious case . . .

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