Who Do You Think You Are?

There is an old Scottish proverb that says, “He whose family has in it neither whore, knave nor fool was begat by a bolt of lightning.”

— Families: A Memoir and a Celebration, Wyatt Cooper,

(father of Anderson Cooper), Harper & Row 1975

I’ve found the knaves and plenty of fools. Still looking for the whore (s).

Unfortunately the ancestors of the six celebrities of the NBC series Who Do You Think You Are? are short on all three, though they uncover more than enough of pathos and tragedy. Having finished watching the last episode, herewith a few thoughts:

  • I stick with my initial reaction that the program would lead one to believe that the search for ancestors involves pulling the first book off the shelf. It was wonderful to see Richard Roberts and Mel Smith of the Connecticut archives point out that at one time people had to search through large books for the census and that other records do not always appear via the magic of the internet. Mel has been one of the most helpful people I’ve encountered at the archives, curious and eager to expand my knowledge, regardless of the topic. He’s also the go-to man for fixing the ancient microfilm readers.
  • The series provided the names of a couple of specialists in black genealogy that I want to research further. I mentioned Majorie Sholes in “Busy Weekend IV” (July 2). She’s especially interesting to me because she’s got Louisiana connections. The other was Melvin J. Collier. I’ve been hearing about Mississippi to Africa: A Journey of Discovery since he published it. Will be reading it as soon as I finish the pile of four or five books on my reading stand …
  • The segments that had the most meaning for me featured Emmitt Smith and Susan Sarandon. In both cases they started from almost no information and arrived at a solid conclusion with sadness and joy intermingled. I’ve already mentioned being moved at seeing Smith cry as he gazed at the brambles that covered the graves of his ancestors. Sarandon’s grandmother also became a pathetic figure, marrying for the first time at thirteen. But she found love and happiness even though it meant abandoning her Sarandon’s mother.
  • While the Emmitt Smith and Spike Lee episodes continue to make me angry, Lisa Kudrow’s story still fills me with ineffable sadness. After all, the legacy of slavery has left most African-Americans without the heritage of family names and with a history that generally stops in 1870. But Kudrow had to go back only sixty years to find evidence of hatred and genocide. I cried through most of the episode. And despite the horror in Belarus, the most moving scene occurred when her father cried over his grandmother’s death at the hands of the Nazis. I cry still as I write this.
  • It took me into the third or fourth episode to realize how fortunate I was that at least on my mother’s side I had far more information about my family than most people. These family stories also made me realize how many, many children grew up without mothers or fathers, or both. (Sarandon’s mother; Matthew Broderick’s grandmother; Brooke Shield’s grandmother; Spike Lee, a bit older but without a mother.)
  • The photography, including the vintage photographs and archive film segments, and encompassing the sunsets and rows of crosses, and farm houses both colorful and bland, evokes all the proper emotions without intruding on the narratives.
  • As I mentioned, ancestrycom has done a serious disservice to viewers by embedding ads and I find the overall cost truly shocking. I guess the most egregious examples were Lisa Kudrow’s trip into Poland in a Mercedes and Emmitt Smith’s journey to Africa. But they’ve got the bucks.
  • At its most basic Who Do You Think You Are? is about people making connections – connections with their past and connections with the living. Its appeal is to those most human of all qualities, to connect with each other and to tell stories. It succeeds admirably on both levels.
  • Post Script. Several of the episodes contained little threads that connect the generations on levels that we may not always recognize. I chuckled when Emmitt Smith stopped the historian who pulled out Book 22 of the “colored” records because he had always worn No. 22. And Spike Lee who went along with his grandmother’s suggestion for a name of a character in She’s Gotta Have It, which turned out to be the name of his great-great-grandfather. The best, however, was Matthew Broderick’s generations of military men: his great-great grandfather in the Civil War, his grandfather who was wounded in World War I, his father who served in the Navy in World War II. And before he knew any of this he portrayed one of the bravest and most gallant military men of all time, Robert Gould Shaw, the white commander of the “colored troops” in Glory. For those who think that the ancestors want us to find them, check out the Divine guidance section of the Rootsweb message board.
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4 Responses to “Who Do You Think You Are?”

  1. Harv Says:

    Lizz is planning a trip in October, Bear Witness, which will take her to Auschwitz. If she doesn’t have a job to come back to, she is thinking of going to Vilnius (Vilna) in Lithuania where my family is from. Most left in the early 1900s to escape the Czar and the rest were probably killed in WW II. She just wants to get a sense of her Roots.

  2. Who Do You Think You Are? « Lizr128′s Blog | Lisa Kudrow Says:

    […] Who Do You Think You Are? « Lizr128′s Blog Tags: emmitt, emmitt-smith, episodes-continue, heritage, slavery-has, story-still, the-legacy, with-ineffable, without-the, without-the-heritage You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Responses are currently closed, but you can trackback from your own site. […]

  3. lizr128 Says:

    Well, I hope she has a job, but if not I can’t think of a better use of her time. You might be surprised to find people still alive who knew your relatives. See you soon!

  4. Bad Hair Years « Lizr128′s Blog Says:

    […] of how to analyze the five “W”s and then some for each document. FTM also alerted me to “Who Do You Think You Are?” last season. Quick note: for reasons that escape me I haven’t looked at a single episode from […]

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