African American Lives is a fascinating, four-part PBS series that traces the roots of a group of highly accomplished African-Americans back to Africa—including Oprah! Gayle is joined by Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr., the show's host/executive producer and chair of African and African-American Studies at Harvard University, to talk about the show and why it's important to know where you come from.
Eight prominent black Americans were featured in the series: Whoopi Goldberg, Quincy Jones, Chris Tucker, Dr. Mae Jemison, Dr. Ben Carson, Bishop T.D. Jakes, Dr. Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot and Oprah Winfrey. Dr. Gates says he and his team consciously selected a diverse group of people with different talents, backgrounds and complexions to reflect the complexity of black heritage.
In Oprah's Roots: An African American Lives Special, Dr. Gates helps Oprah uncover the struggles and accomplishments of her ancestors. Dr. Gates says that by using genealogy, oral history, family stories and DNA analysis, he was able to trace Oprah's lineage through American history and back to Africa.
Gayle says that what was so fascinating to her about what Dr. Gates uncovered about Oprah's ancestry was that, like Oprah, her ancestors had a deep interest in education. "As long as I've known her, she has talked so passionately about education from day one, so it just strikes me that when you go back to her ancestry to find that her great great grandfather, Constantine Winfrey, also was involved with schools," Gayle says. Dr. Gates adds that Oprah's great-grandmother, Amanda Winters, had close ties with education, too.
Given the resources and freedoms available to people today, Dr. Gates encourages everyone—especially African-Americans—to learn more about their heritage. "I think it's important because as a people—the African-American people—the means of knowing our history was held back from us," he says. "We were prevented from knowing our ancestry. All the tribes were scrambled, you had to give up your African name, you had give up African languages. So our past was just this huge question mark."