Honoring Our Ancestors: Finding Oprah’s Roots on January 24th

Oprahs Book.bmpby Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak

If you haven’t already heard, you’re going to want to check out your PBS station tonight, January 24th, for Oprah’s Roots (check your local channel here for details).  I haven’t had the pleasure of seeing the special yet, but I just received and gulped down the companion book, Finding Oprah’s Roots: Finding Your Own, by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and can only hope that another Oprah-inspired campaign is about to begin–this time for genealogy.

Familiar Territory
If you’ve been digging into your past for even ten minutes, Finding Oprah’s Roots will feel familiar.  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!  Imagine my delight when I found the 1870 and 1880 census records for Constantine Winfrey, one of Oprah’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 isn’t genealogy-lite.

Uncovering Oprah’s roots also revealed a bit of a family theme–in this case, on stressing the importance of education. I think that will resonate with many.  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?  As I often say, our roots claim us in ways we don’t even know.

Plusses and Minor Minuses
The book paints a realistic picture of the nature of African American family history–the challenge of that stubborn wall that so many encounter in 1870, but softened with demonstrations of how it’s sometimes possible to push past that hurdle.  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 genealogist’s hat, I would like Finding Oprah’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 online–not just indexes and transcriptions, but digitized images of documents.  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 I’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, “Here’s where I go all kumbaya on you.”  I explained that, to me, it’s all about connection–that if you go back far enough, we’re all cousins and we’re all African.  And that even the mere pursuit of roots helps us grasp this in an almost tangible way, and answer that age-old question of “Who am I?”  There’s strength in knowing where and who you come from, and very real reasons we use words and expressions like “rooted” and “standing on the shoulders.”

Oprah didn’t have to research her roots to get all that.  She just knew it.  I loved excerpts like this one:

“Before I have a big meeting or decision to make,” says Oprah Winfrey, “I go and I sit with the ancestors.  Literally, I go and sit in my closet and I say their names.  I just say their names so that when I walk into the space, I don’t walk alone.”

Well, thanks to the research that went into this show and book, Oprah has a few more ancestors’ names to speak.  And with a bit of luck, her story will inspire a fresh wave of family historians, and for that, we can all be grateful.  Here’s hoping that the newcomers include some of those distant cousins you’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)

Details and links to upcoming events


8 thoughts on “Honoring Our Ancestors: Finding Oprah’s Roots on January 24th

  1. I have to wait until April before the Albuquerque station airs the PBS special.

    None-the-less, I’m purchasing the text at my earliest convenience. Thank you for your informed review!

    “Guided by the Ancestors”

  2. Please do a artical on determining relationships. ie 7th
    cousin once removed,etc. I once saw such an article that contained such information in the monthly or weekly ancestry
    but no longer can find it. thanks!


  4. It would have been nice to have seen this program. However it apparently aired on Jan 24. And I received the information on Jan 29 in the digest. Not helpful.

  5. I viewed Oprah’s Roots. While it was enertaining, it did not go any futher in the researching of her family than was previously done, with the exception of giving her the names of tribes she came from in place of the Zulu she has always claimed. When I first saw this statement in Newsweek Magazine as she stood in the midst of thousands of South Africans claiming “I am Zulu”, I remarked to one of the classes I teach, “Oprah, by this statement with no DNA or research (she claims she was told this) and being the powerful woman she is, has done a big disservice to us African American Genealogist who know, there is no truth without proof. This show did very little to dispell this notion. She still knows very little about her families. Her comments are retorical.

  6. I have watched Oprah’s show for decades, subscribe to her magazine, ect. Since I have started researching my ancestors this year, I was very interested in seeing “Oprah’s Roots”. I have an unsettled, empty, feeling in my gut about the ancestor that were skipped over. The white ancestor, which I think was a Presley. Can’t express how I feel about that??? Did the book cover this ancestor?

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