Dr. Henry Louis Gates

Living in a country made up of people with ancestors from all over the world, many Americans want to know—where did I come from? But for many of those Americans whose ancestors were forced into slavery, uncovering their lost family histories can be nearly impossible.

In the groundbreaking PBS series African American Lives 2, Harvard professor Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. helps prominent African-Americans discover their roots.
Chris Rock

One famous face to appear on the show is comedian Chris Rock. In his research, Dr. Gates reveals that Chris's great-great-grandfather, Julius Caesar Tinghman, served in the U.S. Colored Troops during the Civil War. Within just a few months, Dr. Gates says, Julius was promoted to the rank of corporal. By the time he died in 1917, Julius had gone from being a slave with no possessions to owning 65.5 acres of land.

"Even while it was going on, he was telling me, 'Your great-great-grandfather owned property,' and 'Your great-great-grandfather did all this stuff,' I thought I was being Punk'd. I really did," Chris jokes. "I thought Ashton Kutcher was going to come from behind something and go, 'You know your grandfather was nothing but a slave. You know he just mopped up for white people. Come on, we got you.'"
Chris Rock

Finding out about his ancestor's accomplishments was mind-blowing, Chris says. "It's weird how you don't realize what low expectations you have for yourself until somebody shows you what your people have actually accomplished," he says. "I would've never thought anybody in my family did anything like that. It really blew my mind."

Chris says the experience made him feel a range of emotion. "It made me proud that this stuff exists and I can pass it down to my children," he says. "And it made me a little sad because I always considered myself so lucky. Yes, there's a lot of luck with the success … but when you see that people before you managed to make it, you feel like maybe it's your birthright or destiny. We as black people don't feel that we're destined to do anything but bad, and when we do good, we're like, 'Ooh, I'm so lucky.' So it made me happy and sad."
Chris Rock

Dr. Gates also tells Chris that his great-great-grandfather Julius was elected into the South Carolina legislature when he was 27 years old. "It's so weird, because I'm a comedian and this guy was a politician, and I never knew where this gift of gab came from. A politician has to know how to crack a joke and tell a story and do all those things. I didn't know it was hereditary," he says.

Chris says if he had known about his ancestors' successes earlier, it might have changed his own aspirations. "If I'd have known I'd come from politicians and people of intellect, I would have probably tried to get into the intellect business," Chris jokes.

After learning about his family history, Chris says he can make sense of certain things. "The things I'm doing with my life, they make sense," he says. "Let's just hope that everybody learns where they come from so their lives can make more sense."
FROM: What Makes America America
Published on January 23, 2008


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