Has anybody else watched this? It’s an Americanization of the British version (which I haven’t seen) in which celebrities meet with genealogists and travel to places associated to places associated with their family history. So far they’ve done Sarah Jessica Parker and Emmitt Smith. Both episodes are available online through NBC or Hulu.
Sarah Jessica Parker’s was interesting. She had no idea her maternal ancestors had been in America for almost 400 years; she thought they were recent immigrants. She learned that one of her ancestors left his pregnant wife to seek his fortune in the California Gold Rush and found a record of his death, and she nearly flipped out upon finding one of her 17th century ancestors was accused in the Salem Witch Trials.
Emmitt Smith was able to trace his ancestry to a slave named Mariah born around 1815 in Virginia and found the legal document by which she was transferred to a relative of her master’s in Alabama. She and her children were listed as mulatto in census records so this also opened up some understandable questions about her paternity and if her master was her father. In the end of the episode he went to Benin, Africa, to visit the area where his DNA testing said his most probable area of ancestry was.
Both shows had some interesting moments but they also had some serious “ugh” moments. Genealogy is one of my interests and many other Dopers who have ever devoted time to it can verify it becomes an addiction. It’s almost frustrating how much delight discovery of a 250 year old gravestone transcription or 1882 deed or, best of all, the last will and testament of a relative who died a hundred years “before your mother was born, though she was born a long long time ago” can bring you. However, most other genealogists will also tell you that while it’s a fascinating topic when you’re researching your genealogy, there are few things more boring than listening to somebody else talk about their genealogy, so I understand that NBC has to spike the interest quotient a bit.
The biggest irritation with the first show was SJP’s drama queen moment on learning of her witch trial ancestor and the “please please please let her have been one of the accused and not one of the accusers! Please!” (Honey, she’s been dead for more than 300 years- if she personally exterminated twelve Iroquois villages, it doesn’t reflect on you, it’s just interesting to know.) I was also irked, as a librarian and a genealogist, at their implication that she had to travel to Salem, Massachusetts to find out about this ancestor- no, almost all of the documents asssociated with the trials are available online from any location. (Now to get a feel of the place, yeah, but they acted as if only the librarian in Salem could supply the answers.)
The biggest irritation with the Emmitt Smith episode was an omission: he was being shown records about his ancestors in the courthouse in Monroeville, seat of Monroe County, Alabama, and they never once mention that this is the courthouse and the town fictionalized in To Kill a Mockingbird, and his relatives lived there at the time the events that inspired the book occurred*. That’s kind of like visiting Pigeon Forge, Tennessee and not mentioning “oh, btw, Dolly Parton is from here and owns that major themepark that dominates the town” or, well- visiting 17th century sites in Salem, Mass. and not mentioning the witch trials.
My favorite part of the Smith show was when he summed up my position on genealogy perfectly. Somebody told him “this will tell you who you are” and he responded, politely (seems like a nice guy), “I already know who I am… this will tell me about my family history”. EXACTLY! (I’ve never understood people who take huge pride or shame in the deeds of their ancestors- if you’re a descendant of the Mayflower passengers or of Heinrich Himmler, either way it’s nothing you did, but it is interesting to see how it affected your history.)
So, mixed reviews, but anything that sparks interest in genealogy is okay by me. In future episodes they’re going to do Matthew Broderick (Mr. SJP), Lisa Kudrow (who’s one of the show’s U.S. producers) and Spike Lee (which I don’t understand the need for since Henry Louis Gates already profiled the research into Lee’s ancestors for the PBS genealogy show African American Lives- go with someone else).
Anybody who has seen the British version: how similar or different is the U.S. version?
And others who watched it: what’d you think?
*While TKAM is fiction, many of the characters and the rape trial were inspired by actual events.