By Lindsey Ziliak
Henry Louis Gates Jr. traces family histories to prove that people are more alike than they are different.
“Dr. Gates illustrates through his genealogies that we are all united,” said Susan Maxson, chairwoman of this year’s Doing the Dream program. “We are all very, very connected.”
Gates, a Harvard professor and nationally-renowned expert in examining the past, will speak at the Ivy Tech Event Center Jan. 25 as part of the college’s Doing the Dream program that honors Martin Luther King Jr. The celebration will also be the statewide kickoff of Ivy Tech Community College’s 50th anniversary.
“We wanted to do something big and major,” Maxson said.
Maxson and the “Dream Team” that organizes the event wanted a speaker who reflects King’s message of peace, unity and service.
That Gates’ message also ties into the college’s anniversary is a bonus.
“Dr. Gates’ visit to our region is in recognition of Dr. Martin Luther King’s vision of unity, especially as we are united as Americans,” Maxson said. “It’s also very fitting that Dr. Gates is speaking to us about roots as we celebrate our roots as a college.”
Gates is the highest-profile speaker that Ivy Tech has ever brought to Kokomo, Maxson said.
The college has sold 400 tickets so far. People are coming from all over the state to hear him speak. And there is at least one person making the trip from Washington D.C,, Maxson said.
He has quite the following among the genealogy community, she said.
Gates hosts a PBS program called “Finding your Roots.”
On the show, Gates and his production team comb through family stories to discover unknown histories and relatives the guests never knew existed. When paper trails end for each story, the team turns to top geneticists and DNA diagnosticians to analyze each participant’s genetic code, tracing their bloodlines and occasionally debunking their long-held notions and beliefs, according to the show’s website.
He traced the family histories of celebrities like Martha Stewart, Samuel L. Jackson, Barbara Walters, Kyra Sedgwick, John Legend and Sanjay Gupta.
He wrote a blog on the PBS website titled “The Interconnected Black and White Americas.” In it, he talked about the biggest surprise of the show.
“I think the biggest surprise for me so far is how inextricably intertwined the history of white Americans is with black Americans,” he wrote. “This turns out to be true even at the level of the genes.”
During his examinations, Gates found out that the white actress Sedgwick and the black musician Legend were connected, too.
Their ancestors both played pivotal roles in court cases involving slavery, Gates wrote in his blog. Sedgwick’s ancestor served as a lawyer and Legend’s as a client in a case.
“Gates loves the surprise factor,” Maxson said. “He’s so interesting.”
She said his presentations usually inspire people to look into their own family histories.
“A lot of us might be surprise by what we find in our own life histories,” she said.