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Mounting a Curricular Revolution: An Interview with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

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Harvard professor and cultural critic Henry Louis Gates, Jr. captured some 25 million viewers with his riveting PBS documentary series, African American Lives (WNET). Using genealogical research and DNA science, Gates traces the family history of 19 famous African Americans. What results is a rich and moving account of the African American experience.

Gates recently spoke with Public School Insights about the documentary and a remarkable idea it inspired in him: To use genealogy and DNA research to revolutionize the way we teach history and science to African American Students. Now, Gates is working with other educators to create an "ancestry-based curriculum" in K-12 schools. Many African American students know little about their ancestors. Given the chance to examine their own DNA and family histories, Gates argues, they are likely to become more engaged in their history and science classes. As they rescue their forebears from the anonymity imposed by slavery, students begin to understand their own place in the American story.

If the stories in African American Lives are any guide, they're in for an experience.

The Significance of African American Lives

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: Tell me about "African-American Lives" and its significance, in your view.

GATES: Wow, that's a big question. [Laughing] I got the idea in the middle of the night to do a series for public television that would combine genealogy and ancestry tracing through genetics. I've been fascinated with my own family tree since I was 10 years old - that's the year that my grandfather died. Following his funeral, my father showed me his scrapbook collection. It was news to me that he had kept scrapbooks, and among the articles that he had clipped in all of these scrapbooks, made out of bank ledgers, was the obituary of Jane Gates, my great-great-grandmother, who was a slave born in 1819. She died in 1888. I've been making amateur stabs at family trees, literally since I was 10 years old.

A few years ago a scientist, Dr. Rick Kittles, approached me and said that he could do DNA analysis and tell what [African] tribe [I was] from. He came up to my house, and he took a big vial of blood--and it was very painful [laughing]. Then he sent me the results a few months later and said that I was a Nubian. Well, it turns out that wasn't true.

But anyway, I was intrigued by this process. I literally got up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, and it occurred to me that I could do a series with eight prominent African-Americans--getting the Mormons to do their family trees and then, when the paper trail ran out, [analyzing] their DNA. The next day I called Quincy Jones, and he agreed [to participate]--he was an old friend of mine--and then I wrote to Oprah Winfrey, who was his best friend. Within a week she had agreed.

Pull out Quotation So I was well on my way, and now I've done two four-hour series for PBS and a one-hour special on "Oprah," and 25 million people have watched the series. It's been an enormously gratifying experience, and I've done the genealogy and genetic ancestry tracing for 19 African-Americans.

The Implications for History and Science Curricula

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: I've heard you say that you believe this work that you're doing in DNA and genealogy could revolutionize science and history curricula, particularly for African-American students.

GATES: That's right. Fifty percent of our black children are not graduating from high school. Fifty percent. That's every other black child. So the situation is dire, and the condition is desperate. We have to try any innovation we possibly can to reach these kids. It occurred to me, given the response to "African American Lives"... You know, everybody is responding to this series. And why? Because your favorite subject is what? Yourself!

FreemancopyWEB.jpgSo why don't we use these same techniques to transform the way we teach history to inner-city black and brown kids--and science? We will incorporate a unit, probably a six-week unit, in tracing our own ancestry in the history class. Each week the kids will add another rung on their family tree. They'll go home and interview their parents--where they were born, when they were born, and [they'll] collect family stories and share them with the class. Then the next week their grandparents, and then the next week their great-grandparents, and their great-great-grandparents. Obviously, they won't be interviewing people who are dead. But they will be gathering family stories about what people remember, as well as what they can turn up in the Census, the tax records, estate records--you know, whatever. And it's marvelously interesting.

You see, if you and I, Claus, went into an inner-city school and said, "We're going to drag you into historical archives about the Civil War," or the Great Depression, or the Great Migration, kids would say, "Get out of town." But if we said, "We're going to trace your family through those periods and to those periods," my goodness, who wouldn't be interested in that?

Likewise, once we get to the Civil War--remember, the slaves didn't have legal names so they don't appear in the Census with two names until 1870. Once we get to 1870 or the Civil War or whenever the paper trail ends, then we'll turn to DNA. We'll swab their cheeks, and this is where the science class comes in. We'll teach them how DNA works, how ancestry tracing is possible through the analysis of their DNA.

Pull-Out quotationWe'll also teach them about the history the slave trade while we wait for the results. About where the slaves came from, what their identities were, how the slave trade worked, and then, when they get the result, they'll do a report on the tribe they're from.

I mean, my God, this is just--I get excited just thinking about it. I mean, imagine if we had had this when we were kids.

I think that we can reform the way that we teach history and science, using these techniques. Again, they'll be short periods, like a six-week period or whatever, but then we should have--we should, by then, have the kids already turned on to learning. So it's a way to teach them something and to fire their imaginations. That's what the goal is.

Implementing the Curriculum

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: As you know probably better than anyone else, discussions about what to include in curricula and especially history curricula can sometimes get sticky or political. Have you ever encountered any of this resistance?

GATES: No, not yet, because I haven't tried to implement it. [Laughing] We're just designing it. But I've mentioned it so many times on television and in interviews, that the response has been enormous. Over 200 teachers have written to me, saying, "Try my school. Use us as a prototype."

AngeloucopyWEB.jpgSo what we'll do... We hope to have this curriculum finished by the end of the first semester. And then we will pick, I would hope, a school in Boston, because that's where I live, a school in New York, a school in the Midwest, and a school in the west. And then go from there just to see if it works. It's fine for me to think of this idea, but I don't teach school. [Laughing]

But I've been heartened by the response from principals and school superintendents and heads of foundations. Everybody's interested in trying this. So I don't think it's going to be a problem implementing it--and I hope that I'm right and that my expectations are met, that my optimism about it is justified. But I don't think it could do any harm.

The Civic Dimension of Genealogical Education

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: Do you think there's a civic dimension to this work? If students are situating themselves within a history of exclusion and oppression as well as triumph, that this could somehow support the goals of civic education?

GATES: Oh, yeah. I think that any time you get kids interested in the history of the country--in this case, through the history of themselves or their extended selves, their families--it is performing a civic function.

PUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: Is there any other education work on your horizon you would like to share?

Pull-out quotationGATES: I'm doing a new series on Abraham Lincoln that will be out in February, because it's the bicentennial of Lincoln's birth. It's called "Looking for Lincoln." I'm very excited about that, and I'm interviewing the President of the United States on August 13th at the White House, and he's going to give me a tour of the Lincoln Bedroom. [The series is] about how each successive generation of Americans since Lincoln's assassination has projected their--what one historian called their "neurosis du jour"--on to Lincoln. When you look into the mirror of Lincoln, as it were, you see yourself reflected. So I'm very excited about that.

But nothing--and back to the civic point. I think that it's--first of all, it's a disaster for black America--for us specifically and America generally--that half of the African-American high school kids are not graduating. That means that the percentage of functional illiteracy must be enormous when measured by the capacity to read the front page of a newspaper with understanding. How can people who are not educated participate fully as citizens in this great republic? The sense of civic duty cannot be fulfilled, the sense of civic duty that the Founders had for each of us when they wrote the Declaration of Independence. I mean, it presupposes a literate citizenry.

Pull Out Quotation So my idea is to use the fascination with one's collective self, one's familial self, to seduce people back into learning. When I was growing up in the '50s, we were people of the book. Black people were people of the book, too. The blackest thing you could be was a doctor or a lawyer, not a basketball player or an entertainer. And in fact, according to the 2000 Census, there are fully 100 more black, board-certified cardiologists than there are blacks in the NBA. But the average black person doesn't know that.

Even black people think we have an extra basketball gene. Inner-city black kids think it's easier to make a success of their lives playing basketball than to go to med school, but it's not. Statistically, it's just not. And so we all need to do something drastic to change these attitudes, and that's what my curriculum idea is all about.

Besides, I'm trying to bridge the gap between Harvard and Harlem, as it were. And this is a good way to do it, through a curriculum project.

TurnercopyWEB.jpgPUBLIC SCHOOL INSIGHTS: Well, thanks very much. Is there anything I should have asked you but I didn't?

GATES: No. No, dear man. But there's a new book--I have a new book called Search for Our Roots, which is the companion book to African American Lives 1 and 2, and it will be published in February--I'm really excited about that--about the same time as my Lincoln documentary is going to come out.


Related Resources

African American Genealogy: "The Root is a daily online magazine that provides thought-provoking commentary on today's news from a variety of black perspectives. The site also hosts an interactive genealogical section to trace one's ancestry through AfricanDNA.com, a DNA testing site co-founded by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who is also The Root's Editor-In-Chief."

Genealogical Resources for Educators: African American Lives 2: For Teachers offers "lesson plans--which adhere to national learning standards--[and] contain video segments from AFRICAN AMERICAN LIVES 2, comprehensive instructions for classroom implementation, downloadable student handouts, links to relevant and dynamic online resources, and suggestions for cross-curricular extensions."