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Kimberly Powell

Celebrity Genealogy - New PBS Series

By January 6, 2010

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Poet Elizabeth Alexander, who composed and read the poem at President Barack Obama's inauguration, chef Mario Batali, comedian Stephen Colbert, novelist Louise Erdrich, writer Malcolm Gladwell, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, film director Mike Nichols, Her Royal Highness Queen Noor, actress Eva Longoria Parker, actress Meryl Streep and figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi will all appear in a new PBS television series FACES OF AMERICA airing in the U.S. next month. Hosted by Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. of African American Lives and African American Lives Two, Faces of America turns again to the latest tools of genealogy and genetics to explore the family histories of 11 renowned Americans.

The Faces of America series airs Wednesdays, February 10 - March 3, 2010 from 8:00-9:00 p.m. ET on PBS and includes the following four episodes:

  • "The Promise of America" (2/10) - Episode one explores the dynamic and shifting relationship America had with her new immigrants in the 20th century. World war tore apart families and sundered the fabric of many lives, but America beckoned and millions came. America was an ambivalent host, however. At its best, it was a place of refuge and salvation, as it was for film director Mike Nichols whose entire family escaped Nazi Germany. At its worst, it was a country that would imprison two generations of Japanese Americans, including the forebears of Olympic gold medalist Kristi Yamaguchi. Viewers will discover the buoyant American optimism that shaped chance -- as in a single encounter that changed cellist Yo-Yo Ma's life forever -- to pave the road to success.
  • "Becoming American" (2/17) - Episode two explores the many journeys to becoming American that defined the "Century of Immigration" (1820s-1924) and transformed the United States from a sleepy agrarian country into a booming industrial power. Stephen Colbert's Irish great-great-grandfather escaped poverty and religious oppression in Limerick and never looked back, whereas Mario Batali's great-grandfather, who left the place where his family had lived for centuries, struggled to survive in the quartz mines of Montana. Queen Noor's Syrian great-grandfather quickly found his footing in New York's first Arab-American community, while Kristi Yamaguchi's grandfather faced exclusionary laws and racially defined barriers to citizenship for decades. The obstacles, short cuts, tragedies and successes encountered or created by the guests' ancestors from around the world reveal the complexity of our shared history and identity as Americans.
  •  "Making America" (2/24) - Episode three tells the story of the peopling of the New World, how land came to define the settling and identity of America and how the guests' ancestors were part of this history. Viewers learn of Meryl Streep's eighth great-grandfather who fought in Metacom's War; records of a land dispute in Spain that forced Eva Longoria Parker's ancestors to leave for the New World in 1603; and Yo-Yo Ma's Chinese genealogy, which gives insights into the identity that Ma has longed for his whole life.  
  • "The Record Within" (3/3) - Episode four takes up the ancestor search where the historical record leaves off and links the guests' distinctive family histories to the broader history of "the family of man." Combining the documented stories of some of the guests' last known ancestors with DNA evidence, the series travels backward through time to reveal both distant relatives and surprising shared ancestral connections. Elizabeth Alexander learns that she is a direct descendent of Charlemagne and that her paternal roots are not only European, but Jewish. Meryl Streep and Mike Nichols discover that they are distant cousins, as do Yo-Yo Ma and Eva Longoria Parker. Interwoven with these stories and others is the journey of the host, Henry Louis Gates, as he, his father and brother undertake a historic project to have their entire genomes mapped, thereby learning everything they possibly can about their own family. This episode offers a compelling and thought-provoking meditation on the importance of ancestry, the meaning of family and the role of both in creating identity.

For those of you who can't wait for the show to air, there are a number of guest teasers online at YouTube:

Mario Batali  - What Mario knows about his family history. "I know that my great grandfather, my maternal grandfather's side, Canadian, French Canadian, his last name was La Framboise, which is of course the raspberry, which is a great humor when you're in France." "We were always surrounded by family growing up." He wondered why his ancestors left Italy as early as they did.
Stephen Colbert - Colbert on the family stories he heard growing up (his father and mother's sides). The Colberts were from southern Illinios, were holy rollers and horse thieves and ran a ferry in Canada on a river. His mothers father came over from Ross Common to work on the Erie Canal.
Eva Longoria - She calls herself a "Texican",  and speaks on growing up in Texas, and her family's hispanic traditions.
Dr. Oz - Shares stories told by his grandmother in Istanbul, Turkey, including how his grandparents came to be married so that his grandfather could avoid future mobilization in the Turkish Army.

Kristi Yamaguchi - Shares what she heard from her parents growing up about her Japanese-American grandparents and their time in the WWII internment camps.

Other online teasers can be found as well on the Faces of America channel on YouTube.

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