At a time of division in this country, the message of a show like “Finding Your Roots With Henry Louis Gates Jr.” can be especially heartening.
Indeed, in delving into the heritages of folks including entertainers RuPaul and Jordan Peele; actors Tea Leoni, Bill Hader, Issa Rae, Tony Shalhoub and Julianne Moore; journalists Ann Curry, Gayle King and Norah O'Donnell; House Speaker Nancy Pelosi; filmmaker Kasi Lemmons; and fashion designers Zac Posen and Diane Von Furstenberg, as Gates does when the second half of Season 6 begins tonight on PBS, he again proves that people are not all that different, despite varied backgrounds and upbringings.
“I want to say I am so deeply proud of this series for our country, especially now, to show what we have in common, both as Americans and as human beings, despite our apparent differences,” says Gates, a professor at Harvard University and director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. “The stories we find in our guests' family trees demonstrate over and over that we are fundamentally a blended nation, bonded by shared values. We draw strength from our diversity, and despite our apparent phenotypical differences, at the level of the genome we are 99.9 percent the same.”
The new round brings forth stories of oppression and sacrifice involving several guests. In the premiere episode, RuPaul discovers that his enslaved third great-grandmother was emancipated in 1804 in Louisiana and spent the next 14 years working with her brother to buy the freedom of her mother, RuPaul's fourth great-grandmother.
Later in the season, Posen learns that both sides of his family were Jewish immigrants from Russia, where they were prohibited from owning farmland and attending university and thus were forced to work in low-paying trades. His paternal great-grandfather worked as a master shoemaker and made enough money to bring his family to America, where his descendants could be free to pursue any livelihood they wished.
In the episode, Posen reflects on how he may have inherited his interest in shoes and fashion from both his paternal and maternal sides.
“I wanted to see these amazing shoes that were cobbled,” he says. “I wanted to feel and see this incredible skill set that allowed my family eventually to come to America and (was) definitely inspired by the journey. It also led to further research of my family's journey, and that was pretty cool.”