BYU Forum With Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is a favorite PBS show among genealogists and family historians. The show chronicles the ancestry of many noted Americans and brings historical context to these ancestral stories. At the end of the show Professor Gates provides each of his guests with an ancestral chart and a Book of Life. We were fortunate when Professor Gates gave the keynote address at RootsTech in 2018. He received a standing ovation for his remarks. I was fortunate once again this week when I had the opportunity to hear him speak at a BYU Forum.

His lecture was titled, “Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow.” He began by saying that, “I love being in Utah. I love being in Salt Lake City because I love genealogy.” He also shared a preview of the upcoming 6th season of Finding Your Roots. In the local market, the first two of 16 episodes have already aired. The remaining episodes resume January 2020. He mentioned that Nancy Pelosi is one of the guests and quickly add that Mitt Romney will be featured in the 7th season, stressing that PBS is bipartisan. 

He recounted the reconstruction period and the pushback freed black men experienced, including high fees to exercise their right to vote and the abhorrent act of lynching. He said we must address “the past that haunts our present” and enlightened the audience about the necessity of the civil rights movement. 

Henry the Sleuth, my plush associate, had the honor to meet Professor Gates after the forum.

He observed that history is repeating itself once again and that as a people we need to be vigilant about protecting our rights. “Now it’s time to change the narrative. History repeats itself only if we let it.”

 Once he shared his prepared remarks, students were given the opportunity to ask questions of this accomplished educator, author, and Emmy award-winning filmmaker. Only a handful of students were able to ask questions because of limited time, but here is what I was able to capture from Professor Gates’ responses to specific questions:

Dr. Gates recommends reparations in the form of affirmative action. He believes that “guilt is not inherited”, but “social issues have a traumatic effect.” He encourages leveling the playing field and providing equal opportunity. He suggested that, as a nation, we should provide an equal amount of money spent per child for education eliminating rich and poor districts. He reminded the audience there was a time when if you obeyed the law and worked hard your children would do better in life, but it’s “not true anymore.” 

He believes that “every woman, no matter race, has benefited from affirmative action.” He encouraged that we “be vigilant about the Supreme Court. Pressure the court to defend the rights of the individual.”

His call to action is, “We must suppress white supremacy whenever it rears its ugly head.” In context he acknowledge that white supremacy is not related to skin color as much as it is an attitude. 

He said, “Racism is racism…if you say bad things about people and characterize them as a group, that’s racism.”

Henry the Sleuth shares a sweet moment with Professor Gates after the forum.

“We have to fight racism whether it’s coming out of the mouth of a white person or black person.”

“We all come from the same pie. We all come from Africa. Mormons are big genealogists…Do that tree back 50,000 years ago, everybody would look like Michael Jordan walking around here.”

“Racism and oppression were not invented in America. It is enormously complicated.” 

“Be honest about the past, admitting it [racism] was wrong and ugly in the sight of God.”

“Talk about it [the past].”

“Be open to it [concerns and conversations about the past].”

“Confession is very powerful.”

“We all have to be aware we have blind spots.”

Professor Gates suggested that oppression is economically motivated. “Every society has demonized someone else within that society for economic reasons.” Then he asked, “Who is going to have access to the pie? What happens when there’s only one piece of pie?”

I appreciate his remarks and provoking the conversation. War, law, and social history played out through the individual and collective lives of our ancestors. This period of history affected every ancestor who lived through the Civil War and every generation since that time.

Genealogists and family historians must avoid presentism and glean insight through understanding the time period while also addressing the impact of past actions on the struggles of the current day.

Which of your ancestors were alive and involved during this period of time? What records are available to recount their experiences? What you can learn about them? What can you learn from them?

© 2019 Lynn Broderick, a.k.a., the Single Leaf. All Rights Reserved.

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