Faces of America

How 12 Extraordinary People Discovered their Pasts

288 pages

July, 2010

ISBN: 9780814732649



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Henry Louis Gates, Jr., is the director of the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research and holder of the distinguished title of Alphonse Fletcher University Professor at Harvard University. He is the author of twelve books, including several award-winning works of literary criticism as well as the memoir Colored People; The Future of the Race, co-authored with Cornel West; Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man; and Tradition and the Black Atlantic. Gates has hosted ten PBS television specials, including Looking for Lincoln and the two part series, African American Lives, upon which his book In Search of Our Roots (2009) was based. He is winner of the 2009 Ralph Lowell Award for Outstanding Contributions to Public Television and the 2010 NAACP Image Award for Non-Fiction.

All books by Henry Louis Gates Jr.

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.


  • “In Faces of America, Henry Louis Gates Jr. has found a middle path: He applies the most rigorous genealogical and genetic tools to the family histories of 12 ethnically distinct Americans, and in doing so touches on the history of not only these individuals but on the human race itself...Gates’s breezy, intimate style and obvious affection for his subjects results in a book that is the bionic version of that old fourth-grade family tree assignment, thanks to the support of a world-class Rolodex and Harvard researchers and geneticists. It’s fun.”

    The Boston Globe

  • “There are surprises—[Gates] finds a common ancestor between Queen Noor of Jordan and African-American academic Elizabeth Alexander; both are 37th great-granddaughters of Charlemagne—and in getting such subjects as Mike Nichols to open up about their pasts, he finds how powerfully the past informs the present. Gates offers a book stuffed with epiphanies that will spark curiosity among readers about their own ancestry as well as their possible connections to each other.”

    Publishers Weekly

  • “The complex immigrant story of the United States viewed through extensive genetic and genealogical research into the backgrounds of 12 ethnically diverse, famous Americans.... [I]t is the broader sweep of history and the causes and ramifications of human migrations that engage the reader and give the book its impact.”

    Kirkus Review

  • Faces of America adds compelling evidence that the American story of race is a far more complicated affair than the conventional wisdom of the past would have us believe. Science, history, and genealogy come together in this accessible, intelligent, and elegant presentation. This is a must read for all who are interested in reconstructing the story of the American people.”

    —Annette Gordon-Reed, 2009 Pulitzer Prize winner and 2008 National Book Award winner for The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family

  • “Henry Louis Gates, Jr., takes us on a spellbinding journey into the lives of some of America’s favorite celebrities by excavating historical archives and using the latest advances in genealogy and genetics. A rich tapestry of the nation’s people, Gates’s Faces of America uncovers the common thread that holds us together while highlighting the differences that make us unique from each other and from one generation to the next.”

    —Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Victor S. Thomas Professor of History and of African and African American Studies, Harvard University