It was a wise decision on my part.
African American Lives was well produced, did a fantastic job of digging up family stories, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. was a very good host. The two-hour program (parts one, "Listening to our Past," and two, "The Promise of Freedom") flew by -- always a sign of good TV or filmmaking -- and I couldn't wait for parts three ("Searching for Our Names") and four ("Beyond the Middle Passage"). I would heartily recommend African American Lives to anyone already researching their ancestors or someone who might be a little curious and hasn't yet started research.
For a program that does so much right, there were a few things worth nitpicking:
- Nine different subjects may make for a collection of diverse stories, but I felt that had the number been pared down more time could have been spent telling the stories of each family or focusing a bit more on the research.
- I recognize that television programs are edited quite a bit, there is limited time to explain some topics and some details may not lend themselves to keeping the audience interested, but I was a little surprised at how much the census records were trusted. Maybe it's just me, but when I see dates of birth that consist of a month and a year, I immediately think that the 1900 census was the source of such information. The program did not indicate where the birth dates came from, but considering how easily Gates seemed to accept what other census forms showed, it would not surprise me if the 1900 census was in fact the source. It should have been explained that census records are useful, but they have their limitations. [Personally, I am on a bit of a mini-mission to edit all entries in my database to make sure any dates of birth sourced from the 1900 census have "abt" (about) preceding the date. I have found many of the dates from the 1900 census are correct, but I have also found numerous instances of the month or year being just a little off.]
- Similar to my issue with dates from census records, I'm a little skeptical of how literacy was addressed in the censuses. Just taking a quick look at the records I've used, I found one individual who supposedly could read and write in 1850, 1860 and 1880. In 1870, apparently he could not. Another example shows that a man in his mid-20s could not write when the 1880 census was taken in June, but when the census was redone* in November he could. I'm sure if I spent more time looking for examples I could find at least a few just in the records I've saved for personal research. And let's not overlook how children were classified: A large number of enumerators seem to have ignored the literacy issue of the youngest children, yet there were also those who pointed out the obvious, that a toddler could not read or write. The point here is that, again, census records should not be taken literally and Gates should have qualified what he told Oprah Winfrey about one of her ancestors learning to read between 1870 and 1880. If there was additional evidence to support the finding, great. But that seemed a bit misleading to me.
- Gates was also eager to accept that a "Jane" listed in other documents without a last name was his 2nd great-grandmother. Was it likely? Probably. But it would have been safer to qualify such a statement. I sensed that the genealogist assisting him was trying to be cautious, but Gates' exuberance kind of took over the segment. It was understandable, though.
The final two installments of the series were what I was really waiting for. I still do not fully understand which DNA tests are better than others, or if one test can do it all, but I am very intrigued by the test that shows percentages of ancestral roots. I may have missed it before, but I don't recall previously having heard about that test. (My results probably wouldn't be that exciting, although there are a few lines that have not yet been thoroughly researched.) With this test, African American Lives seems to have destroyed the belief that blacks cannot find out where they were from. Granted, it's not perfect and doesn't make up for the fact that tracing specific individuals beyond a certain point is impossible, but I would think this is an exciting breakthrough.
Again, this was a wonderful program. Don't pass it up should it ever air again, or see if your library will be carrying the DVD, which according to Amazon ships on May 2nd.
* I've read that St. Louis, in an attempt to not fall behind Chicago, padded their 1880 totals. When it was discovered, the census was redone in the fall. Those researching ancestors in St. Louis have two sources of information and twice the