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Gates shows how lineage helps deconstruct racism

In the inaugural Gantt Symposium Thursday night at the Knight Theater, African-American scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. discussed how tracing genealogy and knowing your roots can help deconstruct racial misconceptions and myths.

Author of three recent books about the black experience, Gates stepped into a different spotlight in the last decade with several documentaries and the PBS mini series, “Finding Your Roots,” in which celebrities allow Gates to dig up their family trees.

His methods combine researching the paper trail of registries, census documents and property deeds with three DNA tests – one for the mother, one for the father and one that identifies ethnic makeup. After undergoing his own methods, Gates learned that his DNA showed approximately the same percentage of Sub-Saharan lineage as European.

Gates genially relayed family stories that led to his fascination with lineage, including seeing his great great grandmother’s obituary where she was described as “an estimable colored woman.” After consulting a dictionary, the young Gates thought, “If she was someone special, maybe I’m someone special, too.”

Gates pointed to the Greek adage to “know thyself” as a timeless quest served by genealogical research, but also as an avenue to improving curriculum in inner-city schools. Everybody’s favorite subject is themselves, he said.

Gates is working to take his two-fold method into science and social studies classes, seeing the personal connection to core subjects as a way to entice and interest students. He hopes kids will be able to take a swab of their DNA, and while waiting on the results, construct a family tree through interviews and looking at their family’s paper trail.

Former Charlotte mayor Harvey Gantt joined Gates to ask a few questions, including how a person deals with discovering negative things in their lineage. Gates responded by saying people are not confined by their ancestry.

This article is part of the Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance, a consortium of local media dedicated to writing about the arts.
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