If any television program confirms the adage that truth is stranger than fiction, it has to be “Finding Your Roots,” hosted by Harvard historian Henry Louis Gates on the Public Broadcasting Service. In this series, PBS relies heavily on DNA.
Chanteuse Carly Simon discovered that she is some 10 percent black, through a pardo Cuban ancestor, the descendant of slaves. African American radio host Joe Madison learned that he bore no relation to the man who was supposed to be his father, and that his great grandfather was a Confederate soldier who fought for General Lee and married a black woman. PBS documentarian Ken Burns learned of his Confederate ancestor who owned slaves.
“We’re not judging anyone,” Gates explained. “There were a lot of people that owned slaves. There were black people that owned slaves. And most of the people who didn’t own slaves didn’t own them not for any moral reasons but because they couldn’t afford them.”
“The Shirts on their Backs,” episode traced the ancestry of actors Christopher Meloni and Tony Shalhoub. The season seven story, recently rebroadcast in some areas, packed fascinating revelations beyond the backgrounds of the guests.
Meloni, of NBC’s “Law and Order,” learned that his great grandfather Enrico was an orphan and the name derives from the Italian word for melon, possibly a mocking description of the child. Enrico grew up in a small Italian town and eventually headed for the United States, which raises a point or two.
According to the “1619 Project,” the United States was never anything more than a project to preserve and extend slavery, and according to former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, America was “never that great.” If so, why would so many immigrants of all hues make the United States their preferred destination? Enrico arrived in the late 19th century, after the Civil War, and like countless immigrants shares no blame for conditions in America centuries before his arrival. Neither does anyone else currently alive, regardless of race, creed, or country of origin.
Enrico’s American-born descendants became doctors, and Christopher made a mark in entertainment. Ancestors on the mother’s side include a New England man named Farnsworth, kidnapped by Indians and rescued by French priests in what was then New France. This was all news to Meloni and fellow guest Tony Shalhoub, an Emmy winner known for “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” and many other dramatic productions.
Tony’s ancestors hailed from Lebanon, part of a Christian minority in the Ottoman empire. During World War I, the Ottomans sided with Germany and Shalhoub’s grandfather was conscripted into a “labor battalion” that was reserved for Christians, and part of a campaign of concealed genocide from the 1890s to after World War I.
Gates reads a letter from an American newspaper, based on a survivor’s account, describing how Shalhoub’s grandfather was “crucified, being nailed hand and foot to a cross and left to suffer many hours before being finally dispatched by a lance thrust.” A stunned Shalhoub asked if this was true, and in his response Gates abandoned his dedication to historical accuracy.
“Well, the article was written during the era of yellow journalism, where newspapers often sensationalized or exaggerated stories to improve circulation, right?” Gates replied. “And at the time, there was a major bias in American newspapers against the Ottomans because they were Muslim. So it’s possible the story was exaggerated.”
As Gates had to know, the deadly Ottoman campaigns against Christian minorities were well chronicled, with accounts of crucifixion and other atrocities. For details see Peter Balakian’s The Burning Tigris and The Cambridge History of Christianity. The oppressions and suffering of the time also claimed Shalhoub’s paternal grandmother, but his aunt and father made their way to the United States, settling in Green Bay.
According to Gates, Tony Shalhoub shares DNA with Tina Fey of “Saturday Night Live.” And of all the Italian immigrants in America, Christopher Meloni shares DNA with, yes, Nancy Pelosi, shown in a photograph from way back in the day.
“Yeah baby, my girl!” exults Meloni. In similar style, at the end of a tribute for 2016 Gershwin Prize winner Smokey Robinson, PBS trotted out Pelosi to the strains of “My Girl,” as though she was the true star of the show.
Meanwhile, “Finding Your Roots” has profiled many African Americans, including Ta-Nehisi Coates and Don Lemon. On the other hand the show has never featured Barack Obama, even though DNA would help resolve controversies still surrounding the former president.
In his massive 2017 Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama, David Garrow revealed that Dreams from My Father was a novel, not an autobiography, and the author was a “composite character.” Garrow identifies the character “Frank” as Frank Marshall Davis, an African American Communist who spent most of his life defending all-white Soviet dictatorships. Davis bears strong resemblance to Obama, who rejects the “hypothesis” that Davis is his true father.
DNA research would settle the question, and in 2015 Malik Obama, son of the Kenyan Barack Obama, offered his DNA for comparison. The president never took up the challenge, and he also declined to examine a collection of the Kenyan Barack Obama’s materials at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York. As it turns out, in all his writings from 1959-1964, the Kenyan Barack Obama mentioned nothing about his new American wife and Hawaiian-born American son.
“Finding Your Roots” or “Frontline,” the Pelosi Broadcasting Service has yet to give these issues the attention they deserve.