My wife got hooked on NBC’s celebrity family history program, Who Do You Think You Are? watching it on Hulu.com. At her encouragement I watched all seven episodes yesterday. I loved it and recommend it heartily. Considering that the program should appeal to anybody who’s interested in families, geneaological research, travel, history, or celebrities, you’d think it would have pretty broad appeal. It’s been renewed for next season but its ratings so far have been pretty phlegmatic.
The celebrities into whose family histories the program delved this season were Sarah Jessica Parker, Emmitt Smith, Lisa Kudrow, Matthew Broderick, Brooke Shields, Susan Sarandon, and Spike Lee. I learned quite a bit in these programs including that one of Sarah Jessica Parker’s ancestresses was accused of being a witch, that Matthew Brodericks family has been gallant for 150 years, and that, if my Cousin Ansgwerd is right, I may be distantly related to Brooke Shields.
In just the seven episodes that have been aired to date they encountered some of the big, prototypically American stories. There was the WASP story (Sarah Jessica Parker), the story of the Southern and Eastern European immigrants who arrived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (Susan Sarandon and Lisa Kudrow), and the terribly tragic African American story (Emmitt Smith and Spike Lee). If you’re not aware of it, practically all geneaological research for African Americans hits a wall at 1870. That isn’t quite balanced by Africa’s tremendous genetic diversity which makes genetic testing more helpful in pinpointing origins than it is for most of those of European descent (genetic testing of African Americans can identify fairly small likely areas of origin while genetic testing of people of European descent frequently just tells you they’re of European descent).
If you only watch one episode of the program, watch Emmitt Smith’s. The guy is tremendously appealing as a person and his family’s story is, too. I wonder if he realizes how lucky he is? His search for his origins brings home several points that, apparently, need re-emphasizing. That most African Americans are of mixed race. That geneaological research for African Americans prior to 1870 is extremely difficult. That slaves were treated worse than cattle. And that slavery continues right down to the present day in the parts of Africa from which most black African slaves were imported. I think this program ought to be required viewing for every American 9th grader.
There are several more prototypically American stories I’d like to see them cover next season. They should find a celebrity whose famine Irish ancestors they can trace right back to Ireland. It won’t be hard finding celebrities who have Irish ancestry (nearly 40 million Americans claim Irish ancestry) but situating them in Ireland might be pretty tough. I’d like to seem them tell the family story of an American celebrity with Hispanic roots that go back 150 or more years in this country. That’s not as rare as you might think (in an earlier day the charming Leo Carrillo had that sort of background). It would also be interesting to trace the family history of somebody whose origins are completely different from what they thought, i.e. somebody who thought they were Irish but were actually Russian Jews. Stories of that sort, too, are not as unusual here as you might think. America is a place where people came and re-invented themselves.