Finding Our Roots, Losing the Plot
Angela Davis, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and the Bastardization of Black History
The now viral episode of “Finding Your Roots” where famed black Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. reveals to famed academic and former political prisoner Angela Davis that she is the descendant of pilgrims is unironically titled “And Still I Rise.” Gates introduces the episode with the promise of allowing the audience to observe an African-American who discovers that her family is “far more diverse than [she] ever dreamed.” What he means by diverse is that she’s related to white settlers and slaveowners. The show notes detail the objective of the program as “redefining the black experience - and challenging preconceptions of America’s past.” It begins with a montage of Civil Rights and Black Power era demonstrations, including very brief clips of Davis’s own speeches advocating for revolution. It depicts her origins in Birmingham, Alabama and the frequency of white racists bombing homes in her neighborhood as a child, before emphasizing her reluctant emergence as a national figure via her wrongful arrest and legal exoneration. Like a true reality T.V. connoisseur, Professor Gates focused on and made Professor Davis recount this aspect of her life as a set up for the dramatic reveal that one of her ancestors arrived to America on the Mayflower.
An equally surprising revelation (that hasn’t received as much attention since it wasn’t selected for the 50 second promo clip) was the identity of Davis’s biological grandfather - a white Alabama lawyer and legislator born in 1879. When Gates tells Davis that her grandfather was a “prominent member of his community, quite accomplished, very well-educated, and very wealthy,” Davis responds with a question - “was he a member of the Ku Klux Klan or White Citizens’ Council?” She continues, “That’s something I would also want to know because, in those days, in order to achieve that power, one had to thoroughly embrace white supremacy.” Incredibly, after presenting volumes of sophisticated genetic and biographical information about her family history, Gates responds to this request for much less sophisticated information with, “We just don’t know. We don’t know anything about him.” Then, he pivots to his real interest, “Can I ask you how you’re feeling right now?” As a member of the generation that grew up watching Maury Povich’s tabloid talk show made famous for its dramatic pronouncements of infidelity and paternity test results, it strikes me as obvious that the real point of filming these kinds of personal revelations isn’t the information. It’s the emotional manipulation. And it’s particularly strange and insidious to create this kind of spectacle around a subject like race, upon which there remains such intentional illiteracy and lack of comprehension. Gates followed the discovery of Davis’s wealthy, white grandfather up with something more definitive and disturbing - her fourth great grandfather not only fought in the American Revolutionary War, but was a slaveowner.
This could have been a radical moment. Here, Davis and Gates could have engaged in a conversation about slavery, antiblackness, and the fact that black revolutionary movements have been necessary to counter the murderous nature of America’s revolutionary movement. Instead, they discussed how all of this history gave Davis a unique pathway and claim to American patriotism. And this is where I take issue. “Finding Your Roots” contextualizes black history with genealogy, but decontextualizes it from larger historical forces like violence. It does this so that black history can function as a commodity. With Gates’s, and, now Davis’s, imprimatur, black history is reduced to another product in the notoriously extractive and exploitative diversity, equity, and inclusion market. This marketing of black history as wholesome family information that unearths contradictions but never resolves them beyond an internal, emotional reckoning is, at best, unconcerned with, and, at worst, actively invested in eliminating the liberatory capacity of black historical knowledge.
Predictably, the consequences of these revelations are already apparent - white people have begun weaponizing this information to argue that Angela Davis owes reparations. Of course, the argument for reparations has never been and could never be that white ancestry alone is the basis for them. To the contrary, it is precisely the fact that sexual violence was integral to slavery that means, for most black people, white ancestry is inescapable. Part of the demand for reparations is remuneration for mass sexual violence. The argument for reparations has always been rooted in opposition to the power accruing whiteness, which Davis, while having proximity to as a light skinned black woman, does not actually possess as evidenced by the prosecution that made her infamous.
But the people deriding her are not confused. They know that history isn’t a site of unity, but of antagonistic relationships that have material generational consequences. History is not a biological beer summit. This marketing of black history is false advertising. Without more, ancestry doesn’t tell us anything about America that both black and white people don’t already know. For decades, black people have attempted to use appeals to blood relation to lessen the brutality exacted against us, only to find that blood has never made any difference. The fact that our biological relation has never made any difference in our existential relation - that is, in between who remain enslaved and who remain free - is really the only thing worth finding the roots of at this point.