Mediating the Past: History and Ancestry in NBC’s Who Do You Think You Are?
NBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? (WDYTYA?) transports viewers through time and space by tracing American celebrities’ ancestries. The show is one of ten international offshoots from the BBC’s show of the same name. Each episode of NBC’s version follows the genealogy of a well-known celebrity. In its three seasons, the show has featured the family trees of Steve Buscemi, Rashida Jones, Gwyneth Paltrow, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Martin Sheen, among others. For each episode, the show’s research team works with corporate sponsor Ancestry.com’s genealogists to trace one or more lines of the celebrities’ family trees. The documentary-style show takes the celebrities to the locations of their historic family moments, both in the United States and abroad, and chronicles their reactions to the historians and historical documents that reveal their ancestors’ pasts. The show is based upon a premise that is repeated in the show’s title sequence, “To know who you are, you have to know where you came from.”
WDYTYA? is fascinating because it tells histories that are different from those most Americans learn from textbooks and celebrated national stories. To help viewers understand the triumphs and injustices uncovered while researching each celebrity’s history, the series regularly includes brief segments that give viewers relevant historical context. Though critics and viewers have largely overlooked the series (its cancellation in May 2012 received no fanfare), its stories are rich and compelling historical lessons about immigration, assimilation, gender, race, and class—their emphasis on both diversity and unity echoes the discourse of the American “melting pot.” Some of the most compelling episodes, however, are those where relatively little information about a celebrity’s ancestors can be found. These episodes shine a light on the fact that the histories of Americans with little economic, political, or cultural power were recorded unevenly (or not recorded at all), and usually focus on one of the United States’ most shameful and devastating practices: slavery.
Through the ancestries of Spike Lee, Emmitt Smith, Vanessa Williams, Lionel Richie, Blair Underwood, and Jerome Bettis, we learn about “the wall” many African Americans hit when trying to uncover their histories. In each of these episodes, we watch disappointed and frustrated Black celebrities learn that their ancestors’ histories are segregated in documents like the “Slave Schedule” (a census-like document used to collect information about slaves), which lists the number and characteristics (sex, age, color, literacy, mental capacity) of slaves owned, but infrequently contains their names. Instead of the typical “go-to” sources white celebrities use to locate their family histories, Black celebrities must read the diaries and wills of slave-owners to find faint traces of their family members’ fates. And unlike the other celebrities WDYTYA? features, many Black celebrities cannot visit their family members’ graves because their burial sites were only marked provisionally, if at all.
The most compelling moments in episodes of WDYTYA? that feature Black celebrities come when they can break through “the wall.” For example, Bettis feels pride when he learns that his three-times-great-grandfather, hit by a steam engine, successfully sued the Illinois Central Railroad; and Williams is humbled to learn her great-great-grandfather risked his life as a Black union soldier fighting in the American south. Further, WDYTYA? uses DNA tests to trace Underwood’s and Smith’s ancestors to particular villages in Africa, and in Underwood’s case, introduces him to a distant relative. These episodes end with cathartic pride as Black celebrities reclaim pieces of their family histories that at first seemed unrecoverable. These inspiring emotional moments, however, overshadow the fact that the experiences of Black women who shaped and, quite literally, birthed these histories, are absent.
This is particularly frustrating given that many celebrities, like Lee and Underwood, begin their journey hoping to explore the ancestry of a beloved female relative. Bettis’ episode, for example, is driven by his desire to learn more about his mother’s ancestry, yet glosses over evidence that his great grandmother and grandmother were abandoned in the early 1900s, and focuses instead on his great grandfather’s bravery for taking legal action against his abusive white employer at a spoke factory. WDYTYA? sidesteps discussion of enslaved Black women’s experiences of master-slave rape with euphemisms like “commingling” in Smith’s episode. Similarly, Richie passes over evidence that his enslaved great-great-grandmother was raped and praises his ancestor’s slave master for providing for his own mulatto children, saying, “to protect what was his was just the greatest gift.” Only Lee acknowledges his mulatto heritage is a product of slave rape, but neither he nor the show explore what that reality might have been like for his ancestors or Black women more generally.
WDYTYA?‘s efforts to break through “the wall” by uncovering and narrating our ancestors’ lost stories are vitally important. Still, as compelling and significant as Black men’s narratives are, their histories are incomplete without Black women’s voices. And, considering the show’s inclusion of white women’s historical narratives (notably in episodes featuring Susan Sarandon and Helen Hunt), the omission of Black women’s experiences is all the more problematic. Though our female ancestors’ stories have long been overshadowed by their husbands’ and fathers’ histories, Black women’s historical narratives tell equally important and compelling stories–and they should be told on WDYTYA? and elsewhere, no matter how fragmented or uncomfortable. Without Black women’s stories, we can never really know “who we are” or “where we came from.”