African American Lives

Dir: Graham Judd. 2006. Starring: Dr. Ben Carson, Whoopi Goldberg, Bishop T.D. Jakes. English. Documentary/Black Cinema
African American Lives

This is a great documentary that uses history, genealogy, and new technologies to retrace the violently and deliberately erased ancestral histories of a group of participants, all of African ancestry whose relatives were, for the most part, brought over involuntarily from Africa. The answers it provides are often thought-provoking in ways that most discussions about race aren't.

The host is Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr, a W.E.B. DuBois professor of the Humanities and the Chair of African and African-American Studies at Harvard University. I’d seen Gates in Wonders of the African World where he seemed to feign ignorance about everything he learned on his travels in Africa. I mean, he’s got some pretty big credentials and yet he’d continually act like he had no idea about the realities of his chosen subject of expertise until his interviewees revealed it to him. It seemed like he felt that pretending that everything was new to him would make him more identifiable to us, the presumably ignorant viewers. In this documentary, unfortunately, he does the same schtik which is just about the only shortcoming of the documentary, although it can be sort of funny. For example, he “guesses” that, given his appearance, his ancestors came from the East African kingdom of Nubia (huh?!), despite the fact that nearly all slaves in the U.S. came from the West Coast slave centers built centuries earlier, not by Europeans, but by other Africans. Of course it turns out that 0% of slaves were Nubian. His surprise at his DNA results seems genuine though when they reveal that his matrilineal line goes back to Ireland.

And race gets complicated for others too. The documentary points out that the vast majority of African-Americans have substantial genetic ties to Europe through slave owners and, far less often, voluntary miscegenation. Realizing that more blacks are descended from slave owners than whites was something I’d never thought about before. Chris Tucker is the only participant to go back to his African roots, in his case to modern Angola, revealing a sedate and emotional side quite unlike his hysterical, shrieking film persona. South Africa-obsessed Oprah Winfrey seems positively gutted to find out that her ancestors came from, you guessed it, West Africa and not the out-of-the-way Zulu homeland she was clearly rooting for. Dr. Mae Jemison (the first African American Woman in space) finds out that she has Chinese relatives whereas her physical appearance had always been passed down as having been owed to that old stand-by Native Americans. Everyone’s results are interesting and frequently revelatory and show how anyone, regardless of our backgrounds and preconceptions and physical appearance, can find out a lot about who our ancestors were, and that it often won’t bear much similarity to what we’d thought was the truth.

With the help of historians and genealogists, the participants learn a great deal about their families' histories in America. It’s often surprising (given the lengths the slave owners went to to erase family ties) just how much information and materials, in the forms of land deeds, photos and historical records, exists. While I don’t think all that stuff means that much to who we are, intrinsically speaking, for those interested in history and/or genealogy, it’s pretty fascinating stuff.

Posted by:
Eric Brightwell
Feb 2, 2008 4:04pm
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