Kirkus Says Gates Finds the Faces of America

A review of Faces of America: How 12 Extraordinary People Discovered their Pasts, by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., at Kirkus.

The complex immigrant story of the United States viewed through extensive genetic and genealogical research into the backgrounds of 12 ethnically diverse, famous Americans.

Renowned scholar Gates (African American Studies/Harvard Univ.; The Signifying Monkey, 2010, etc.), who narrated the recent PBS mini-series on which this book is based, selected people of accomplishment who interested him, including writers, a director, a chef, a musician, a comedian, a physician, a figure skater, even a queen. With the assistance of genealogical researchers and geneticists, he explored their very different backgrounds and shared his findings with his subjects—not only about their named ancestors but also about what their genes revealed about their family trees. After an introduction and some explanatory notes about DNA testing, Gates offers 12 similarly structured chapters. First he briefly cites the subject’s accomplishments, tells why he or she is part of the project and provides a brief biographical sketch. In the next section, the author puts the ancestors’ personal stories into a broader historical context. Finally he tells each subject what the DNA tells him about the subject’s ancestral lineage, where his ancestors probably lived in the distant past, how they are linked with others on the human family tree and what percentage of the subject’s heritage is European, African or Asian/Native American. Each chapter concludes with the subject’s reaction to the facts and the linkages that Gates has uncovered for them—e.g., Mike Nichols was thrilled to learn that he is a distant cousin of Albert Einstein, and Malcolm Gladwell was stunned to learn that his mixed-race Jamaican ancestors were slave-owners. Other subjects include such luminaries as Meryl Streep, Yo-Yo Ma, Stephen Colbert, Mario Batali and Mehmet Oz.

While the personal discoveries provide human interest in a sometimes tedious recitation of genealogical information and technical genetic data, it is the broader sweep of history and the causes and ramifications of human migrations that engage the reader and give the book its impact.

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