‘Who Do You Think You Are?’

We’re spent Friday afternoon and evening, and a good chunk of Saturday at the Middletown High School Track and Field Invitational so the blog is going up on Sunday.

I wanted to make a couple of observations about “Who Do You Think You Are?” based on the episodes with Emmitt Smith and Spike Lee.

For starters, Ancestry.com is truly impressive at embedded advertising. Of course many people may change their minds about subscribing when they learn the cost. I use it for my work but am growing more and more dissatisfied with the lack of flexibility of the search engines and the comparatively little information on American roots, compared to the volumes from Germany.

As to the substance of the show, I commented on the Emmitt Smith segment on March 17 and 19. I would add that the series as a whole suffers from far too much repetition. Original content might fill fifteen minutes of the hour. I assume the problem arose in the case of both Smith and Lee because of a lack of images of their ancestors or ancestral homes. After all, black folks didn’t have much money to be spending on photographs and most of the “quarters” and other structures have long ago returned to dust.

Nevertheless, the Smith episode was far superior Lee’s. The producers made huge assumptions about his ancestry. One was that a great many former slaves took the names of their last owner. Herbert G. Gutman took more than 600 pages to debunk this myth in The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom. In fact his research showed that most last names had no connection to the last slave owner and came from an early owner of the family or was unrelated to any owner.

Another problem with the Lee episode concerned the paternity of a female ancestor. Just because she was mulatto didn’t mean that her mother was black and her father was white. Both her parents could have been mulatto with the white blood coming in one or two generations earlier. And even though it’s little discussed, black men did have children with white women. Perhaps those scenarios aren’t as likely, but no one seemed to investigate those possibilities or to explain how they reached the conclusion about the woman’s parentage. If they did find evidence, then they needed to cut some of the repetition and present the facts.

I’ll write more about the series when I’ve had a chance to watch the other episodes, especially the one on Matthew Broderick, which includes interviews with a couple of the wonderful staff from the Connecticut State Library.

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