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Black like me

Dr. Gates will raise eyebrows in Faces of America — just ask Eva Longoria

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Published 2/10/2010

Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr., the esteemed Harvard historian, received the call on his cell phone from President Barack Obama to arrange last summer's now-infamous White House "beer summit" while sitting in the American Airlines lounge at JFK. He was waiting for his flight to interview Eva Longoria for his four-part series Faces of America, premiering at 8 tonight on PBS (Channel 56 in Detroit).

Let's take a moment to dwell on the exquisite irony of that moment, shall we? Here's one of America's pre-eminent scholars on African-American history, a TV personage for his previous PBS documentaries African American Lives 1 and 2. Preparing to interview one of the world's most beautiful women for his latest series that illustrates how we are all one people, descending from shared roots in Africa, and may have even more in common than we suspect. Talking to the president of the United States on his celly. To set up a meeting with Cambridge, Mass., police Sgt. James Crowley, the white officer who arrested Gates last July.

For breaking into his own house.

The president's knee-jerk reaction to the incident, you may recall, was to declare the police "acted stupidly," prompting his call for beerestroika in the Rose Garden to calm down everyone's rhetoric. 

"I hear regularly from Officer Crowley," Gates said over his cell phone last week. "He sends me e-mails and we've had a drink a couple of times. 

"I just hope it focused attention on the problem of racial profiling in America. You know I was going to survive, but for all the poor brothers out there who are in jail, who have been capriciously or arbitrarily arrested, those are the people we really need to help. I think that God chooses everyone for a reason, and I think my arrest was intended to focus attention on how 'disorderly conduct' is often just a completely arbitrary charge and that we have to be vigilant against it. I haven't decided if I want to make a film, a documentary about racial profiling, not about myself, or write about the experience."

For now, he's jubilant over the finished product for Faces of America, which Channel 56 will repeat at 1:30 a.m. Thursday after hosting a free four-hour teacher training workshop last week at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in conjunction with the series. Using the latest tools of genealogy and genetics he employed for African American Lives and Oprah's Roots, Gates expands his research "for all the world's people. Obviously I couldn't cover every ethnic group, but I used the Noah approach. I wanted to do Jewish people, do Muslims, Asian people, Hispanics. It's sort of African American Lives for everybody. I think it's the most exciting thing that I've ever done."

The dozen celebrities whose ancestry he traced include cellist Yo-Yo Ma and legendary producer-director Mike Nichols, his longtime friends; Olympic figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi and daytime TV host Dr. Mehmet Oz; Longoria and author-futurist Malcolm Gladwell; Meryl Streep ("the greatest actor alive as far as I'm concerned," Gates gushes) and comedian Stephen Colbert. With the leadership of chief genealogist Johni Cerny of Provo, Utah, Gates travels thousands of miles in support of Cerny's investigations, from Ma's ancestral cemetery in China to Gladwell's relatives in Jamaica.

Among the findings: Ma and Longoria are distant cousins, as are Nichols and Streep. Nichols is related to Albert Einstein, and "we found that Dr. Oz and Nichols descended from a common ancestor 20,000 years ago," Gates says. "Well, that's just like the story of Abraham. One son founded the Jewish people, one son founded the Arabic people. Under the skin we're all cousins. We all came out of Africa 50,000 years ago. One of the high points for me is when we trace Eva Longoria's family coming to the New World in 1603. That's 17 years before the Mayflower! People think of Mexican-Americans coming yesterday, swimming across the Rio Grande, so that will be important for them to see."

Along the way you'll meet Gates' 96-year-old father, Henry Louis Gates Sr., who becomes the oldest human being to have his genome sequenced. "His genome will be studied by scientists for generations," his son beams. "It's a way of immortalizing him."

Through it all, Gates says he was delightfully surprised by the reactions of his celebrity subjects. "I've been black for 59 years, and I know what it means for black people to find their family trees," he says. "But I didn't know what it would mean for other people. And to my amazement and pleasure, it means just as much to them. So it was a bonding experience. Particularly at this time of so much ethnic and religious tension, I wanted children to see just how closely related we all are."

Jim McFarlin is a media critic for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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