Tuesday, December 23, 2014

"Finding Your Roots" - Derek Jeter, Billie Jean King, and Rebecca Lobo

I recently had some relatively minor surgery on my left wrist.  You'd think being off work would give me lots of time to catch up on blog posts, wouldn't you?  It is amazing how much energy even a small surgery can drain from you.  I'm recovering just fine, but suddenly I'll be totally wiped out and need to take a nap.  And the fact that the surgery was on my wrist means that typing for long periods is totally out.  But I'm still working on catching up on my backlog of Finding Your Roots episodes that I haven't posted about.

"Born Champions" opened by posing the perennial question of where superstar athletes get their incredible talents:  Are they inborn, or do they come from hard work?  The question was not actually resolved during the episode or even really addressed again, reminding me of poorly constructed high-school reports.  As it turned out, all three guests — Derek Jeter, Billie Jean King, and Rebecca Lobo — had ancestors who were athletically inclined, even if not to the level of our celebrities.  But all three celebrities also worked very hard to attain the success they did.  So the question remained unanswered.

As for the research, well, it had its ups and downs, as usual.  One of the more annoying moments was when our host, Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., was discussing Derek Jeter's ancestry.  Jeter is biracial; his father is black, and his mother is white.  Gates described how the researchers searched for whites with the name Jeter in the area where Jeter's family had lived to try to determine the former slaveholder.  It's frustrating enough that hobby genealogists use that deprecated method, but Gates must know about Freedmen's Bureau records, which are a much better way to do slave research.  He is supposed to be a highly regarded professional.  And he also talked about how many slaves took their former owners' names.  You'd think he would also mention how current, modern research has shown that the majority of former slaves did not do so, so it is not necessarily the best approach to assume they did.  Well, I would mention it.

In talking with Billie Jean King about the 19th-century adoption of her grandmother, Gates declared that "adoptions aren't part of the public record."  They certainly were part of the public record prior to the early to mid-20th century.  They were usually indexed with the probate cases in civil court records.  To the best of my knowledge, very few states retroactively closed early adoption records when they began to seal adoption records in the 20th century.  I have not only found adoptions listed in the probate index, I have gotten the records.

And now to pick on the ever-popular autosomal DNA results (cocktail-party conversation, remember?).  Gates told Rebecca Lobo that we "all inherit 12.5% of our DNA from each of our great-grandparents."  Well, not exactly.  While it's pretty safe to say that we each inherit 50% of our DNA from each of our parents, the random mixing that happens with each generation means that the percentages beyond that can vary, and after a few generations you might lose all DNA from one of your lines.  (I know that Judy Russell, the Legal Genealogist, wrote about this in one of her posts, but I can't find the specific one.)  So depending on exactly how far back Rebecca's hypothetical Jewish ancestor would be, she might no longer have any of that person's DNA.

We know that the celebrities don't do the research on this program, any more than they do on Who Do You Think You Are?  One of the differences between Finding Your Roots and Who Do You Think You Are?, however, is that in the latter, the celebrities actually visit several of the locations associated with the histories of their families.  On Finding Your Roots, Dr. Gates is the only person we see visiting those locations, such as in this episode when he is filmed at Ellis Island.  Sometimes I wonder if that makes the celebrities on WDYTYA feel more connected to the information they're learning about their relatives.

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