Friday, February 24, 2006

African American Lives

Cemetery Special and Destination America, the last couple of PBS programs that had at least a little to do with genealogy (or so I thought), were not all that interesting. So, despite the seemingly increased blog chatter in the days leading up to the airing of the latest program, I didn't plan on watching African American Lives no matter how often it was mentioned. From conversations I suspect that some people may have thought this show didn't have anything to offer them and as someone who probably won't ever have to research slaves, this also crossed my mind. Just before heading out the night it first aired, though, I decided to record it because I was curious about the DNA research.

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.
These issues are relatively minor. I bring them up only because African American Lives could be what sparks a whole new wave of researchers and while it may not have made for good TV, I don't think it wouldn't have hurt to have explained the pitfalls of census records or warned against making quick judgments of records without other supporting evidence. There are probably two things that need to be stressed the most to new family researchers: Don't completely trust any one source and have some sort of organization when recording your findings. I can attest that both issues -- the latter in my case -- will eventually become huge roadblocks if not taken seriously.

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 work fun. The rivalry between the cities continues today and is primarily played out at Busch Stadium and Wrigley Field. The St. Louis Cardinals have won nine (9) World Series titles -- second, I believe, to the Yankee$ -- between 1926 and 1982, and have been National League champs sixteen (16) times, the last being in 2004. The Chicago Cubs haven't won the National League pennant since 1945 and haven't won a World Series since 1908. :)

[, ]


Chris said...

I agree completely with your analysis of the show: It was far better than I had expected, but could have been even better. Of course, making a show that completely satisfies us nitpicking genealogists might mean turning off people just looking for entertainment.

One more nit to pick: I didn't like that the celebrities were handed their genealogies without doing any of the work themselves. Wouldn't it have been great to see Whoopie Goldberg slogging through census records on microfilm? I think we'd all agree that the appeal of genealogy lies as much in the process as in the results. Oprah and Quincy don't know what they're missing.

Dave said...

As a means of torture? Ever heard of Ancestry or HeritageQuest for federal population census records? ;)

Seriously, though, you're right that the show did make it seem very easy. Too easy, perhaps. I didn't think about how that was portrayed, but it could be a problem. The old timers will really have something to complain about when those newbies come along.

Chris said...

Ancestry? HeritageQuest? Never heard of 'em.