PROVIDENCE — Ruth Simmons isn’t a “Real Housewives” type of gal. It does seem unlikely that Simmons — the first black president of an Ivy League university and a woman with a PhD from Harvard and nearly 30 honorary degrees — would be clamoring for the attention of television cameras. She says with a chuckle, “I would never have been a person to be in a reality TV show.”
But the “reality show” that Simmons did agree to appear on keeps it as real as her own DNA.
The PBS program “Finding Your Roots With Henry Louis Gates, Jr.,” which airs Sunday nights at 8 on Channel 2 (WGBH), is the latest in what is becoming a long line of genealogy series from the well-known Harvard professor, who began his climb into the family tree genre with PBS, 2006’s “African American Lives.” Gates (known informally as “Skip”) has been exploring family lines ever since, through that show’s sequel in 2008 and “Faces of America” in 2010.
Gates became interested in genealogy after his grandfather’s death when Gates was 9 years old, and his obsession was further fueled by a groundbreaking TV miniseries. “Since 1977, I’ve had a bad case of ‘Roots’ envy,” says Gates, by phone.
The 10-part “Finding Your Roots” is Gates’s most extensive series yet. In it, 25 notable names agree to DNA tests and Gates’s crew of researchers and geneticists trace that person’s bloodline as far back as possible. This series focuses, in part, on race, and includes appearances from actors, artists, academics, scientists, and politicians, with everyone from Robert Downey Jr. to Condoleezza Rice sleuthing out their family histories. (Rice and actor Samuel L. Jackson are featured alongside Simmons in Sunday’s episode.)
“Ruth is an old friend and a brilliant academic so I wanted to honor her and give her the gift of the family tree, because she’s done so much for me personally and for the field of African-American Studies,” says Gates.
It turned out to be an interesting case for the show since Gates’s team was able to find two remarkable puzzle pieces in Simmons’s lineage: Her first white ancestor in the United States and the country in Africa from which her first African ancestor came, Gabon.
Simmons admits that she was reluctant to participate when Gates first called.
“You never know what you’re going to discover on those things,” she says, sitting in her spacious and bright office on the Brown University campus. “These are deeply personal things that one learns about one’s self and one’s origins, and there’s a certain amount of that I think of as being private.” But she was persuaded by Gates’s previous efforts and his enthusiasm. “As you know with Skip, you get involved in his projects and it kind of overwhelms,” she says genially of her friend and colleague.
In the episode, Simmons’s journey is eye-opening and disquieting. It includes a trip back to her Texas hometown of Grapeland, where the comparative literature professor spent her early years picking cotton, the last of 12 children of a sharecropper.
“Just being an African-American in this country you always know racial mixture has taken place at some point in your past,” says Simmons. But all she knew as a child was that there was a white man with the same surname as her grandmother’s maiden name, Beasley, who would often come to visit her grandmother for dinner — something that was unheard of at the time. Although this was clearly not a romantic relationship, Simmons and her siblings didn’t quite understand the link between their grandmother and this man. Simmons guesses that her older siblings probably knew, but “these were things that were not spoken of,” she says.
Through “Finding Your Roots,” Simmons (as well as two of her older brothers) were able to meet with a descendant of her first white ancestor, a slave owner, and finally speak of these things: The man was likely her grandmother’s cousin, a relative of that slave owner.
“It was odd,” she says of the meeting, which is captured on the show. “For somebody in my position with the education that I have, it was highly ironic to stand in the square next to the Grapeland Public Library — a place that I couldn’t have gone as a child — and meet a descendant from the Beasley family, and have it finally disclosed that we were cousins. It’s either the height of hilarity that one has to feel or the saddest feeling in the world that the world is so screwed up.”
Her newfound cousin was “quite lovely and open,” says Simmons, but she says both parties acknowledged that the older members of their respective families would have been very uncomfortable with this meeting. “We can accept the fact that slavery resulted in this kind of mixture — often involuntary on the part of slaves — and that we have a whole country filled with people who are attached to each other in these invisible ways.” But, she added, “without the knowledge of it influencing how they see their lives and how they see the country, that’s the sad part of it.”
“The irony of Ruth is she’s led such a pioneering effort in creating a platform through which these universities like Brown and Harvard and Yale can discuss the role of slavery in their past,” says Gates. “So Ruth, intellectually and administratively, as the president of Brown has made a major contribution to our understanding of slavery. And now, through her DNA she’s made a major contribution to our understanding of the relationship between slaves and the masters who owned them.”
Both Simmons and Gates realize that it is an uncomfortable topic for people on both sides of the tangled branches of the family tree to discuss, but insist it’s a conversation worth having.
Simmons believes it’s difficult for some people to understand how strange it can be to not know who you are in the fullest sense, and has always advocated for the disclosure of what has transpired in our nation’s history.
“If you don’t know the facts, the idea that you’re descended from an act of aggression is a tough thing for anybody to live with; but still, knowing is better than not knowing. My own sense is that as human beings, naturally we flee all those things that may be painful to us, but as we evolve one of the things we can do is choose knowledge over flight. It’s the silence that poisons the atmosphere.”
Simmons finishes up her tenure as president in June, and after a short leave will return to the literature department. But in addition to speaking engagements and writing, and, as she puts it, “sticking my nose” in public policy issues, she has at least one other plan on her agenda.
“I’m going to Gabon,” she says of the sub-Saharan African nation she learned was her ancestral home. “Don’t you think that I should be welcomed back to Gabon by no less than the head of state?” she says with tongue planted in cheek. “As soon as that can be arranged by the consul general I will be making my plans to go to Gabon and to be welcomed at the airport in some ceremonial way, with the proper chieftains present.”
When Simmons is told that Samuel L. Jackson also discovered his roots in Gabon, she is tickled and hopes they might be cousins — since she is an avowed fan of “Snakes on a Plane.” If so, there may be a future project for all three of them if Jackson decides to investigate his African roots further as well.
When a “Finding Your Roots” sequel is jokingly pitched to Gates in which he and cameras follow the pair on their new adventure — “Sam, Ruth, and Skip Go to Gabon”— he laughs and says he’d sign up. Simmons agrees. It turns out she might just be the type for a reality show after all.Sarah Rodman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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