If you havenâ€™t already heard, youâ€™re going to want to check out your PBS station tonight, January 24th, for Oprahâ€™s Roots (check your local channel here for details).Â I havenâ€™t had the pleasure of seeing the special yet, but I just received and gulped down the companion book, Finding Oprahâ€™s Roots: Finding Your Own, by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and can only hope that another Oprah-inspired campaign is about to beginâ€“this time for genealogy.
If youâ€™ve been digging into your past for even ten minutes, Finding Oprahâ€™s Roots will feel familiar.Â What a pleasure to read a book that includes census records as illustrations and quotes the likes of Tony Burroughs, Elizabeth Shown Mills and Johni Cerny!Â Imagine my delight when I found the 1870 and 1880 census records for Constantine Winfrey, one of Oprahâ€™s great-great-grandfathers, shown side by side to point out how to you could use the documents to determine that he had learned to read during that decade! This isnâ€™t genealogy-lite.
Uncovering Oprahâ€™s roots also revealed a bit of a family themeâ€“in this case, on stressing the importance of education.Â I think that will resonate with many.Â How many of us during the course of our research have discovered family traits that manage to emerge in various ways in virtually every generation?Â As I often say, our roots claim us in ways we donâ€™t even know.
Plusses and Minor Minuses
The book paints a realistic picture of the nature of African American family historyâ€“the challenge of that stubborn wall that so many encounter in 1870, but softened with demonstrations of how itâ€™s sometimes possible to push past that hurdle.Â I also appreciated the periodic cautions, such as the emphasis on collecting oral history, but not accepting it as absolute fact.
Putting on my picky genealogistâ€™s hat, I would like Finding Oprahâ€™s Roots to include a little more on the nuances of the BioGeographical test (but hey, at least DNA is included and the African Ancestry test is well covered). I’d like to see more about the amazing resources now available onlineâ€“not just indexes and transcriptions, but digitized images of documents.Â Overall, I think the book leaves the impression that family history is a little harder and more expensive than it really is, but its very existence is apt to do far more to inspire than discourage, so Iâ€™ll certainly be recommending it.
Why It Matters
When I appeared on Good Morning America a couple of months ago, Robin Roberts asked me why I was so passionate about genealogy, and I replied, â€œHereâ€™s where I go all kumbaya on you.â€Â I explained that, to me, itâ€™s all about connectionâ€“that if you go back far enough, weâ€™re all cousins and weâ€™re all African.Â And that even the mere pursuit of roots helps us grasp this in an almost tangible way, and answer that age-old question of â€œWho am I?â€Â Thereâ€™s strength in knowing where and who you come from, and very real reasons we use words and expressions like â€œrootedâ€ and â€œstanding on the shoulders.â€
Oprah didnâ€™t have to research her roots to get all that.Â She just knew it.Â I loved excerpts like this one:
â€œBefore I have a big meeting or decision to make,â€ says Oprah Winfrey, â€œI go and I sit with the ancestors.Â Literally, I go and sit in my closet and I say their names.Â I just say their names so that when I walk into the space, I donâ€™t walk alone.â€
Well, thanks to the research that went into this show and book, Oprah has a few more ancestorsâ€™ names to speak.Â And with a bit of luck, her story will inspire a fresh wave of family historians, and for that, we can all be grateful.Â Hereâ€™s hoping that the newcomers include some of those distant cousins youâ€™ve been searching for!
Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak, co-author (with Ann Turner) of Trace Your Roots with DNA: Using Genetic Tests to Explore Your Family Tree (as well as In Search of Our Ancestors, Honoring Our Ancestors and They Came to America), can be contacted through http:// http://rootstelevision.com/blogs/megans-rootsworld.html and www.honoringourancestors.com.
Upcoming Events Where Megan Will Be Speaking
- Haddon Fortnightly
(February 13, 2007, Haddonfield, NJ)
- DuPage County Genealogy Society Conference
(February 24, 2007, St. Charles, IL)
- Enoch Pratt Free Library
(March 17, 2007, Baltimore, MD)
- Wisconsin State Genealogical Society Gene-a-Rama
(April 13-14, 2007, Oconomowoc, WI)
- New England Historic Genealogical Society
(April 21, 2007, Boston, MA)
- The New England Regional Genealogical Consortium Conference
(April 26-29, 2007, Hartford, CT)