Henry Louis Gates Jr. says that his family called his grandfather “Casper” behind his back because he looked so white.
“I wanted to know how someone of my phenotype,” says Harvard historian, referring to his skin tone, “could be descended from him. How, in one generation, I could be the grandson of someone who looked like him.”
That sparked the Harvard historian’s fascination with genealogy. His show “Finding Your Roots” – which traces the family histories of celebrities – is now entering its fourth season on PBS, and it has already yielded some interesting surprises.
For one, Bernie Sanders and Larry Sanders are related. Sanders and Ted Danson both have slave owners in their family tree, and CNN political analyst Ana Navarro learned she had ancestors that were slaves.
“I’m your basic liberal…enlightened, whatever,” says Danson, “But then when you sit there and you connect yourself to a slave owner, it’s powerful.”
When Gates had a DNA test on himself, he found out he had a genetic signature from Ireland. Even more interesting, it turned out his overall mixture was 50 percent black and 50 percent white.
“That means 50 percent of my ancestors back 500 years were white and 50 percent were black,” he explains.
“This is the chairman of the Department of African and African American Studies at Harvard – half a white man. This was a very embarrassing moment for me. I was afraid my salary was going to be docked,” he jokes.
According to a 2014 study done by 23andMe, one of the companies that test DNA, the average African-American genome is nearly a quarter European, and almost 4 percent of European Americans – at least 6 million people – carry African ancestry. The odds of having African ancestry are highest in the South.
As experts note, much of European DNA found in African-Americans can be traced back to before the Civil War and to the rape of slave women. Gates thinks the mother of his grandfather’s grandfather…