TUESDAY, MARCH 30, 2021
Here's what we think he meant: For better or worse, a tiny bit of sleight of hand is frequently involved in the way Professor Gates discusses the family background of his guests on his fascinating PBS program, Finding Your Roots.
Routinely, Gates describes the life stories of a few of a subject's many ancestors. Routinely, he fails to note how many other ancestors are going undiscussed in the process.
Here's what we mean by that:
Typically, a person will have one (biological) father, two (biological) grandfathers and four (biological) great grandfathers. Moving farther back in time, a person will typically have as many as 16 "third grandfathers" (biological great great great grandfathers), along with 32 "fourth grandfathers."
And so on, then on and on, moving farther and farther back along a family tree.
Quite often, Gates will tell the life story of some one of these 16 great great great grandfathers. He will seem to treat that person as if he was the only great great great grandfather of his celebrity guest.
The celebrity guest will then be invited to draw some type of meaning from the circumstances of that one ancestor's life story. As she does, the celebrity guest ignores the fact that she has 15 other great great great grandfathers, whose life stories have gone unmentioned.
(The celebrity guest also has 16 great great great grandmothers. What about the life stories of them?)
There's a bit of sleight of hand in that procedure, but then, what else is new? Along the way, Gates often presents fascinating accounts of the lives certain people lived many long years in the past.
Back in 2017, Gates' interviewed Ava DuVernay, director of the Oscar-nominated film, Selma, for his PBS program. During the bulk of the session, Gates discussed the life stories of a few of DuVernay's many ancestors.
At the end of the session, Gates presented a study of DuVernay's DNA, as he does with many of his guests. This produced a fascinating, good-natured exchange between DuVernay and Gates.
In the course of this exchange, Professor Gates asked The Best Question Ever Asked. This is the question he asked:
"What difference does it make?"
The question was asked in a good-natured way. DuVernay responded in kind. In the course of their exchange, Gates and DuVernay both laughed.
That said, we think Gates' question has great significances for our floundering nation's current cultural moment. At issue was this more specific pair of questions:
How much of DuVernay's DNA traces back to Europe? Also, how much of her DNA traces back to sub-Saharan Africa?
Before Gates let her discover the answers, DuVernay made it very clear that she was hoping for a particular outcome. It was in that context that Professor Gates asked the best question ever asked.
"What difference does it make" he jocularly asked. What difference does it make whether the bulk of your DNA traces back to Europe at some point in time, or whether the bulk of your DNA traces back to Africa?
Somewhat jokingly, DuVernay made it clear that it mattered to her a great deal. Gates seemed to ask if it should make a difference. We understood Gates to be saying this:
It's all just human DNA. There's no essential difference.
Are we the people of our struggling nation essentially all the same? Are we all just plain old humans? Or in our various "racial" and ethnic groups, are we the people essentially different from one another, in fundamental ways?
At one point, the idea that we're all the same lay at the very heart of liberal belief and dogma. The notion that there's no such thing as "race"—that so-called race is just "a social construct"—lay at the very heart of liberal understanding.
A very large shift has occurred in Our Town over the past fifty years. It seems to us that this shift in thinking lay at the heart of Gates' jocular question, the best question ever asked.
At The Root, Breanna Edwards wrote a profile of this exchange between DuVernay and Gates. Accurately, Edwards wrote this:
"It was confirmation of her racial background that gave DuVernay a lot of joy and cause for celebration."
In our view, that's an accurate account of one part of this jocular exchange concerning DuVernay's DNA.
In her profile, Edwards quoted a good chunk of what DuVernay said. She didn't quote Professor Gates as he presented the best question ever asked, but we think his question went to the heart of this floundering nation's current cultural moment:
Are we the people of this flailing nation fundamentally the same? Or are we fundamentally different?
Also, in what ways might we be different? Where do those differences come from? How fundamental are they?
There's no "correct" answer to these questions, except to the extent that there is. Computer willing, we'll be exploring these questions all this week, and in the weeks which follow.
As President Biden has noted, Vladimir Putin is betting that we the people can't sustain—that our differences, real or perceived, are going to drive us into the sea. He's betting that our internal divisions will let autocracy win.
We can't say that Putin is wrong in that assessment! For today, we'll suggest that you read Edwards' account in The Root. Tomorrow, we'll move on from there.
Are the autocrats going to bury us, much as the head of the Soviet Union once dramatically said? We think the best question ever asked goes to the heart of that question.
We think Gates asked a seminal question—the best question ever asked. He was smiling when he did, but his question leads on and on.
Tomorrow: The tale of the (video)tape
Coming Thursday: A remarkable column in The Nation
Expected on Friday: Could this approach produce a modern Babel—a Babel all the way down?