By: Tyler Krzyzaniak, Vanguard Staff Writer
Sometimes, before you can look forward, you must look back.
Last Thursday, Henry Louis Gates Jr. addressed the significance of genealogy in his presentation, “Faces of America: The Genealogy of Racial Harmony.”
Gates is the director of African-American research at Harvard University. As a scholar and author, he has been involved with some of the first scholarly online resources in the field of African-American studies.
Gates has been a driving force behind projects to help African-Americans trace their genealogy back to their tribal roots.
These programs have previously shown the genealogy of public figures such as Oprah Winfrey, Chris Rock, Don Cheadle, Morgan Freeman, Tina Turner, Peter Gomes and Maya Angelou.
The short trailer for “African-American Lives” inspired those in attendance at the Malcolm Field Theater or those listening to the live simulcast next door in the Rhea Miller Recital Hall.
Gates described his personal interest in the ABC miniseries Roots, depicting the lives of an African-American family as a connection to his own views. This interest lead to an interest in genealogy.
He said Jane Gates, his maternal ancestor, a slave whose picture he saw in a newspaper saved by his grandfather, also inspired him.
After reading her obituary, Gates said his father didn’t want him to forget her name.
It was this driving interest that lead to the creation of ancestry databases.
In 2000, Gates learned of a DNA process that traces genetic ancestry to its region of origin. Work done with this process has led to the creation of comprehensive African-American heritage databases.
Since then, Gates has partnered with 23andme.com, a website which allows people of any race to purchase a testing kit.
The website, 23andme.com, is named for the 23 pairs of chromosomes in human DNA.
This self-administered kit allows people to map their genealogy, and in this way, he wanted students to benefit from the information available to them.
He supports the development of science programs in inner-city schools, aiming to help minority students understand their roots.
Gates believes that this approach will help foster self-interest in the science of genetics.
“Your favorite topic is yourself,” he said.
In his research, Gates looks into the racial commonalities that exist between every person.
Gates said that the average African-American is 77.6 percent African, 17.9 percent European and 4.9 percent Native American. One-third of all African-Americans have Y-DNA that originates from Europe, implying a white male ancestor.
“We have to consider ourselves global,” he said.
He suggests that thinking progressively about racial harmony will serve to ease existing tensions within the United States.
Gates had once been involved in an incident where unfair racial tensions lead to an arrest.
In 2009, he was arrested for breaking and entering into a suburban Cambridge home by Officer James Crowley, who was responding to a 911 call by a neighbor. The house he was accused of burglarizing was his own.
Gates hoped it could be a learning opportunity about racial assumption.
“I hope it made people more sensitive to both racial profiling in America as well as police fears,” he said.
He was angered for having been arrested in his home, but understand that racial tension still exists.
“We were two men that fit the description and when the officer responded on the scene he saw us with open suitcases,” Gates said.