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Faces of America

Faces of America: How 12 Extraordinary People Discovered their Pasts

Henry Louis Gates
Copyright Date: 2010
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    Faces of America
    Book Description:

    As a nation of immigrants, the American experience is vibrantly defined by the diverse racial, ethnic, cultural, and religious heritage of its people. Perhaps because so many of their ancestors migrated to this country relatively recently, Americans are especially concerned with their family trees, carving out personal histories by combing through documents such as wills and estate records, federal and state censuses, and private family papers, and mining the stories and tales handed down to them by their forebears.Since 2007, the Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., has been helping African Americans find long-buried details about their ancestors by researching their family trees and then, when the paper trail ends, by analyzing their DNA and marrying that information to a wealth of historical data. Now, in Faces of America Gates explores the family trees of twelve of America's most recognizable and extraordinary citizens, individuals who learn that they are of Asian, English, French, German, Irish, Italian, Jamaican, Jewish, Latino, Native American, Swiss, and Syrian ancestry: Inaugural poet Elizabeth Alexander, chef Mario Batali, comedian and television personality Stephen Colbert, writer Louise Erdrich, writer Malcolm Gladwell, actress Eva Longoria, cellist Yo Yo Ma, writer and director Mike Nichols, former monarch of Jordan Queen Noor, surgeon and author Dr. Mehmet Oz, actress Meryl Streep, and Olympic gold medalist and figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi.In addition, each of the subjects in Faces of America underwent dense genotyping to trace their genetic ancestry on their father's line, their mother's line, and their percentages of European, Asian, Native American, and African ancestry. Faces of America unfolds as a riveting journey into our country's complex ancestral past. Readers will share in the surprise and delight, the shock and sadness of these twelve individuals themselves as Gates unveils their rich family stories, traced back to their arrival on America's shores, and beyond, deep into the history of their ancestors' countries of origin. America, as Gates shows us, is a nation of many historical threads, interwoven and united in the present moment. In this compelling book, Gates demonstrates that where we come from profoundly and fundamentally informs who we are today.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-3320-2
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Introduction: Looking at Faces
    (pp. 1-9)

    ON JANUARY 3, 2001, Dr. Rick Kittles, Assistant Professor of Molecular Genetics at the National Human Genome Center at Howard University, sent me a letter that would answer a question that had haunted me since I was nine years old: Where had my ancestors originated in Africa? To what “tribe” or ethnic group did my original African ancestors, who had come to this country most probably in the seventeenth or eighteenth century in the slave trade, belong? For my part, I had longed to learn the identity of my ancestors in this country since July 2, 1960, the day on...

  5. A Note on DNA Testing
    (pp. 10-13)
  6. 1 Mike Nichols 1931
    (pp. 14-33)

    FOR NEARLY HALF a century, Mike Nichols has been one of America’s most creative and influential artists. He is among the tiny group of people to have won all four of our most competitive awards for film, television, theater, and sound recordings—an Oscar, an Emmy, a Tony, and a Grammy.

    Mike first gained notice in the early 1960s as half of the legendary comedy duo Nichols and May, skewering this country’s middle-class social mores. He went on to become an ever more complex and nuanced artist, a leading film and theater writer and director who has spent four decades...

  7. 2 Meryl Streep 1949
    (pp. 34-50)

    IF HOLLYWOOD WERE a kingdom, Meryl Streep would be its queen. There is no more gift ed actor today on film or the stage. She has been nominated for twenty-five Golden Globes and sixteen Academy Awards (including wins for both Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress), and she has very deservedly received the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award. I have admired her since we overlapped as students at Yale in the seventies. Even then, I found her stage presence transfixing, as I would watch from the cheap seats reserved for students. I could see the commitment she makes to...

  8. 3 Queen Noor 1951
    (pp. 51-71)

    LISA HALABY CAPTURED the world’s imagination when, in a storybook marriage to King Hussein of Jordan, she became Her Majesty, Queen Noor. After King Hussein’s death, she continued to command universal respect for her ongoing role as an outspoken advocate for world peace and justice. She plays an active role in promoting international understanding of Arab and Muslim culture and politics, Arab-Western relations, and conflict prevention and recovery. When she agreed to participate in this project, she told me her primary interest was to learn about the family of her Arab ancestors before they left for America in the 1890s....

  9. 4 Louise Erdrich 1954
    (pp. 72-90)

    LOUIS ERDRICH IS the author of thirteen novels as well as volumes of poetry, short stories, children’s books, and a memoir of early motherhood. Her novelLove Medicinewon the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1984, andThe Plague of Doveswas a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2009 and won the Anisfield Book Award for Fiction. She is, I think, one of the great novelists writing in this country today .

    She is also the product of a fascinating, truly American family. Her novels are steeped in the traditions of both her Ojibwe and her German ancestors,...

  10. 5 Yo-Yo Ma 1955
    (pp. 91-106)

    YO-YO MA IS among the most recognizable and beloved musicians on earth. The greatest cellist of our time, he has performed on every continent and at hundreds of significant events, including President Barack Obama’s inauguration; he has won innumerable awards and sold more records than most rock stars. He is a hero in Asia and America and an inspiration to countless young musicians around the globe. Yet I was surprised when I first met him, several years ago, to learn that he knew almost nothing about his family’s past beyond having visited the graves of his grandfather and great-grandfather. He...

  11. 6 Dr. Mehmet Oz 1960
    (pp. 107-127)

    DR. MEHMET OZ is so famous as a media personality that it is easy to forget he is also one of the nation’s preeminent surgeons and professors of medicine. Vice Chair and Professor of Surgery at Columbia University, he performs over two hundred heart operations annually and also directs the Cardiovascular Institute and Complementary Medicine Program at New York Presbyterian Hospital. He has cared for a number of people I know, and I can say with certainty that the accolades he’s received are entirely justified. He’s a passionate doctor, consumed by learning about virtually every aspect of health—and concerned,...

  12. 7 Mario Batali 1960
    (pp. 128-145)

    MARIO BATALI IS one of America’s most colorful and celebrated chefs. He owns six highly successful restaurants in New York City, along with a distinctive winery. He has written best-selling cookbooks, hosted a Food Network show, and won countless accolades for his enduring contributions to American and Italian cuisine. I happen to be addicted to his restaurant Babbo. I eat there whenever I can. Babbo’s entire menu is a feast for the eyes and palate, but my favorites are the grilled calamari appetizer, the gnocchi with oxtail, the rock shrimp with chorizo and spaghetti, and the huge grilled double pork...

  13. 8 Elizabeth Alexander 1962
    (pp. 146-169)

    DR. ELIZABETH ALEXANDER is a poet, professor, and chair of the African American Studies Department at Yale University. She is the author of five books of poems (includingAmerican Sublime,a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize) and two collections of essays. Among her many honors, she has been awarded a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, two Pushcart Prizes, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the inaugural Alphonse Fletcher, Sr. Fellowship for work that “contributes to improving race relations in American society.” In 2008, Barack Obama selected her to compose and read a poem at his inauguration as president of the United...

  14. 9 Malcolm Gladwell 1963
    (pp. 170-191)

    MALCOLM GLADWELL IS one of America’s most creative journalists. The author of fourNew York Timesbest-selling books and a staff writer for theNew Yorker,he has redefined the way we think about an array of subjects large and small—from statistics to cognition to the underlying causes of genius, from the invention of hair dye to the source of Led Zeppelin’s guitar riffs. He is a truly eclectic thinker, someone who is constantly challenging conventional wisdom. His is one of the most brilliant minds of our time.

    I asked him to participate in this series after reading his...

  15. 10 Stephen Colbert 1964
    (pp. 192-215)

    STEPHEN COLBERT IS one of the most original political satirists in the United States today. I adoreThe Colbert Report, his Emmy and Peabody Award – winning series on Comedy Central. I love the way in which his character — a conservative talk-show host who revels in his Irish American identity and basically claims he’s more American than apple pie — is so carefully and affectionately drawn. You feel for the guy, in a strange way, even as he acts like a crazy monster version of Sean Hannity. I was not at all surprised to learn that the character is, in fact, a...

  16. 11 Kristi Yamaguchi 1971
    (pp. 216-233)

    THE FIGURE SKATER Kristi Yamaguchi captured America’s imagination in the late 1980s and early 1990s, winning victory aft er victory on the international stage, culminating in an Olympic gold medal in 1992. Since then, she has had a celebrated professional career and become an active philanthropist. I asked her to participate in this project aft er learning that her stunning achievements stood in stark contrast to the racial prejudice that had followed her family down through the generations. Both of her parents were imprisoned in Japanese internment camps as children. Three of her four grandparents spent time in the camps...

  17. 12 Eva Longoria 1975
    (pp. 234-248)

    EVA LONGORIA BE CAME a household name when she was cast on the hit television showDesperate Housewivesin 2004. Since then, she’s built a remarkable career in Hollywood, all the while donating her time, money, and image to a host of worthy Latino causes. I asked her to participate in this series in no small part because I admire her for this. When she moved to Hollywood in the late 1990s, she was a very young woman, in her early twenties. She was trying to get work, and she could have done what countless other actors have done: pass...

  18. DNA Appendix
    (pp. 249-256)
    Nathan Pearson
  19. Index
    (pp. 257-277)
  20. About the Author
    (pp. 278-278)