Talking to Henry Louis Gates, Jr. about his popular PBS show, Finding Your Roots, it’s impossible not to feel the enthusiasm he has for the program, which was almost derailed last year by that whole Ben Affleck kerfuffle. On the day we spoke with him, what was supposed to be a 10- to 15-minute interview turned into an almost hour-long interview. Had he not had other obligations, it felt totally conceivable that he’d have spent the rest of the day speaking to us about the show. For the noted author/historian/academic, hosting and producing Finding Your Roots is much more than a job, it’s the passion of a lifetime. According to Gates, his love for genealogy and ancestry research started when he was a 9-year-old boy attending the open-casket funeral of his grandfather in Cumberland, Maryland.
“My grandfather’s name was Edward St. Lawrence Gates, and he looked like a white man,” Gates told Uproxx. “I’m standing there holding my father’s hand, looking at the corpse of his father in this casket and I’m terrified, and my grandfather was so white, we called him Casper behind his back, so you could imagine how white he looked dead. He looked like he was coated with alabaster and sprinkled with baby powder.”
Gates told us that finding out how he, an African-American child, descended from such a pale-looking man sparked something of an obsession that began that day. Fueling things even more, Gates said that after the funeral, back at his grandparents’ home, his father showed him an obituary dated Jan. 6, 1888, for his great-great grandmother, Jane Gates, a former slave described in the obit as “an estimable colored woman.” Furthermore, Gates said that his father also showed him a photograph of Jane Gates, and she looked nothing like the grandfather the family had just memorialized.
“I wanted to figure out how someone with my phenotype could be descended through my father of this ghost-looking white man, and then how he was related to this woman, who was a slave, who clearly was much darker and more African-looking, so I was hooked,” Gates said.
As the years passed, Gates became equally obsessed with helping others discover their roots. He told us that the idea for turning this obsession into a television program came to him in the middle of the night when he got up to urinate. It was a profound “ah-ha” moment that Gates now refers to as “a gift from God,” one he was so moved by that “tears just ran down my face” as he stood over his toilet.
Ahead, we discuss how Finding Your Roots is made, why it’s so appealing, and Gates’ favorite moments from the show, among other topics.