Thursday, October 9, 2014

"Finding Your Roots" Begins Its New Season

The new season of Finding Your Roots has started, but I'm running a week behind on viewing, because PBS is airing the program against NCIS.  I'm sorry, but I've found it easier to watch Finding Your Roots at alternative times than to wait for NCIS to appear in my On Demand menu.  So maybe I'm not totally obsessed by genealogy after all.

As anyone knows who has watched both programs, the premises behind Finding Your Roots and Who Do You Think You Are? are very different.  A WDYTYA celebrity starts out by talking about a specific question he wants to know the answer to or wondering if something in her family background has any relationship to what she is like.  The program sends its celebrities around the country and sometimes the world in search of documents, even though they are not doing the research themselves.  We watch the process of discovery and follow one clue to another (though as I often comment, the path shown may have huge leaps and departures from logic).  The question voiced at the beginning is handled by the end of the episode.

In Finding Your Roots, on the other hand, we do not see any of the research.  Each episode has a theme of some sort and three to four celebrities whose stories tie into that theme.  It would appear that the theme and a predetermined narrative are chosen, and the producers then look for celebrities whose stories fit, though it's possible they have a pool of celebrities they research and then put together themes and narratives based on what they find.  Our host, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., presents each celebrity with a completed book, and during the episode a few items are highlighted and sometimes discussed.  We are completely removed from the research process and rarely have knowledge of how information was discovered or how one piece connects to another.  We're very much on the outside looking in.  From my perspective as a genealogist, there's little to comment on, because it is impossible to follow the flow of research.  All that's left is an entertainment piece and possibly finding out about a new research resource, such as the episode featuring Sanjay Gupta, in which I learned about the existence of some written family records for Indians prior to Partition.

So far I have seen only the first episode of the new season, "In Search of Our Fathers", featuring Stephen King, Gloria Reuben, and Courtney Vance.  For differing reasons, each of the celebrity guests grew up not knowing their fathers.  As expected, various discoveries were made about their fathers, and they came away knowing more than they had.  But some things puzzled me.  For example, Gloria Reuben said that she had not been able to learn the names of her father's parents from her mother.  The way the story was presented, it appeared that Reuben's parents had married in Canada.  Canada's marriage licenses require both parties to list their parents' names.  So why was the information not available from that resource?  Did they not marry in Canada?  Did they marry at all?

Then I thought that several parts were phrased poorly.  When discussing King's father's decision to change his name from Pollock, Gates acted surprised that the researchers were not able to find out why he changed it.  What's the big surprise?  It's rare to find documentation of a name change in the early 20th century for anyone.  When Gates talked about the influenza pandemic, he said it "wreaked havoc across the country."  That's quite an understatement, considering that part of the pandemic's infamy comes from the fact that it was worldwide.  And when speaking of Vance's father, in the beginning Gates said he was a foster child, then later used the word adopted without any explanation for the change in terminology.  The foster care system and adoption are very different legally and emotionally for the people involved; the terms are not interchangeable.

On a personal level, I don't like hopping back and forth between each celebrity's story.  I find that technique merely emphasizes the lack of continuity that is inherent in not following the research process.  I find Gates' habit of reading directly from his notes to be somewhat stilted.  I also don't like Gates' heavy reliance on DNA and how much credibility he gives autosomal results.  Judy Russell, the Legal Genealogist, has explained very clearly that these numbers are essentially "cocktail party conversation" and nothing more.  On the other hand, something I really enjoy about Finding Your Roots is that since it's on PBS, I don't have to suffer through an Ancestry ad during every commercial break; they're limited to one appearance in each of the beginning and ending underwriter sequences.


  1. I was laughing during this week's episode with Ken Burns. I won't give any details since you haven't seen it yet, but it was fun seeing his reaction to his own family's history.

    My favorite part about both series is seeing the celebrities reactions to holding records in their hands. Records make it real.

    1. Thank you for not posting any spoilers. I'll be watching the episode tomorrow.

      Holding records does make it real. The most special record I've held is the permission signed by my third-great-grandfather for his son, my great-great-grandfather, to enlist during the Civil War.


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