Back to her future
Oprah Winfrey traces family roots on 30th anniversary of landmark miniseries
January 24, 2007
Thirty years ago this week, "Roots" aired on ABC, and to call this a mere "event" is a little bit like calling "American Idol" a mere talent contest. In TV terms, it was the landmark of landmarks - a cultural earthquake that opened a hundred million pairs of eyes, and (maybe) a few hearts, too. Coincidentally - or perhaps not - someone named Oprah Gail Winfrey got her start around this time as well.
Winfrey launched her Baltimore TV show, "People Are Talking," a year later and she never looked back. After nearly 30 years, we know everything about Winfrey, or enjoy the illusion that we do, which is part of her charm. At times, Winfrey seems to be the only fully functioning, three-dimensional human being in pop culture. The hair, the weight, the , the exercise, the boyfriend ... and the littlest detail about every last thing in this most public of public lives? Yeah, we know all about that stuff.
And, of course, we really don't know much of anything. That's why tonight's "Oprah's Roots" (WNET/13 at 8) is an intriguing addition to the Universe That Is Oprah. It's entirely fitting PBS would mark the anniversary of "Roots" with a special like this - ABC's not doing a blessed thing, by the way - because she's the most famous African-American woman in the world. Also, way back when "Roots" aired, the science of genetics still was in the dark ages. Alex Haley might have been able to write fiction about his roots, but he had no way of tracing them through a DNA footprint.
Geneticists do now, although the miracle of their work forms just a small piece of "Oprah's Roots." This is part detective story, part science lesson and part trek down some of the bleakest alleyways in American history, from slavery to the Jim Crow South. If you accept the premise, as William Faulkner did, that the past isn't dead (it isn't even past), then this may be the most fully alive portrait of Oprah Winfrey we'll ever get.
As she tells host (and pal) Henry Louis Gates Jr., "I think our journey on the planet is the personal movement forward of the self, [and] there's no way you can do that unless you're connected to the roots from your past."
Gates, the eminent African-American studies scholar and author of a companion book to tonight's program called "Finding Oprah's Roots: Finding Your Own," pushes the hands of the clock back hundreds of years.
"What I wanted to know," he said in an interview last week, "was how Oprah Gail Winfrey became Oprah."
Gates first met Winfrey through Quincy Jones last year when he produced "African-American Lives" for PBS. After he got her permission to start digging, the really hard part began. Genealogy's a tricky craft to begin with, but infuriatingly complex and emotional for African-Americans whose pre-Civil War ancestors often bore no last name or who could be traced only through someone's property records. Dig deep enough or far back enough, and the pain suddenly becomes real and present.
Winfrey, as her fans know, was the offspring of a brief, passionate fling that took place in Kosciusko, Miss., 54 years ago. She lived with her mother, Vernita - the horrors of those years have been oft-told - then with her father, Vernon. With the help of land and birth records, courthouse documents (and an assist from leading genealogist Tony Burroughs), Gates follows the lineage of both Vernita's family and Vernon Winfrey's back through Reconstruction. Winfrey learns more about her grandfather, Elmore, who escaped sharecropping "because he had a good head for figures" and ended up owning land. (Elmore - an absolute ringer for Oprah - also ends up housing a pair of civil rights workers during Freedom Summer in 1964.)
They push back another generation, to great-grandmother Amanda Winters, on Vernita's side; she helped raised money to build a school for girls.
"You're re-enacting what she did!" says Gates, referring to Winfrey's recently announced South African venture - a school for girls - while the TV star nods vigorously and happily.
And further back still, to great-great-grandfather Constantine, who owned 160 acres where he raised eight children and moved a "school [there] ... so colored children could have an education."
The trip backward then leads to a wildly overgrown cemetery in Choctaw County, Ala., where an even more distant grandfather now lies. He was the slave of Absalom Winfrey, captured at Vicksburg.
Further back and Gates admits that the journey for Winfrey - and millions of other African-Americans - enters the realm of educated guesswork to a certain extent.
"We believe her family," he says, "came through South Carolina because she had an exact [genetic] match with the Gullah on Sea Island, and they came in through Charleston."
And what of Winfrey's self-described Zulu ties? Fact or fiction? Says Gates, "She has no Zulu - maybe spiritually, but no Zulu. She wanted to have it and I wanted her to have it, and when the [DNA] tests came in, I said, 'Do it again, make her Zulu.'" Instead, she descended from the Kpelle people in Liberia.
Nevertheless, of her journey, Gates says, "She was very pleased with the results.
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