Finding Your Roots brings viewers on a journey across time. With a special focus on the experiences of families and looking at how our ancestors preserved and redefined cherished traditions, host Henry Louis Gates Jr. takes us from Asia and Africa to Europe and the Americas, uniting us all through emotional moments that both enrich and enlighten. Discover the surprising ancestral stories of 28 fascinating guests including Scarlett Johansson, Amy Schumer, Christopher Walken, Larry David, Bernie Sanders and many more.
Guests: Larry David and Bernie Sanders
Two guests linked by one hilarious impersonation trace their roots from 1940s Brooklyn back to Jewish communities in Europe. Larry David discovers his German heritage by way of ancestors who settled in Mobile, Alabama in the mid-19th century. Bernie Sanders gains greater understanding of his father’s dangerous childhood in Austrian Galicia during World War I. Both guests discover what happened to the family members who were still in Europe during the Holocaust — Larry David’s grandfather lost nine siblings; Bernie Sanders’ uncle, a member of the Limanowa Judenrat, heroically went head to head with a Nazi officer.
Through DNA testing, our guests learn there is more to their uncanny likeness than they ever suspected.
Guests: Christopher Walken, Fred Armisen and Carly Simon
In this episode, three guests each learn about a grandparent whose real identity and background had been a mystery to them. Along the way, two of them also discover their close relatives were on the wrong side of history.
Christopher Walken, who grew up never meeting or even knowing the name of his mother’s father, learns he was a Scottish felon who served prison time in the 1880s. Fred Armisen discovers an unexpected connection to Nazi Germany as he sees evidence of his grandfather — a man he’d thought to be a Japanese dancer — had a much more complicated life than he’d ever imagined. Carly Simon learns the surprising ethnic identity and hidden Cuban past of her own mysterious grandmother, a woman who reinvented herself so often her true name was nearly lost to history.
Each guest comes to see his or herself in a new light based on these freshly revealed facts about their intimate kin.
Puritans and Pioneers
Guests: Ted Danson, William H. Macy and Mary Steenburgen
Three mainstays of modern-day Hollywood discover family legacies predating the United States itself. Ted Danson learns of two colonial ancestors who broke the mold: a Connecticut Revolutionary colonel and famed iconoclast Anne Hutchinson. William H. Macy learns of his own family’s nonconformists — a Puritan punished for helping Quakers who went on to help purchase Nantucket and a Confederate widow who committed pension fraud to attempt to regain the family’s financial stability. Mary Steenburgen’s ancestors, too, refused to follow the script, including a rowdy drunkard who served under George Washington in the French and Indian War.
Taken together, these diverse stories from the past show our guests how personal choices can change history.
Guests: Ava DuVernay, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Janet Mock
The guests featured in this episode have helped redefine Black America in the last decade and learn how their familial origins shaped their identities. Ava DuVernay traces her stepfather’s roots in Alabama — an inspiration for her breakout film Selma — to his third great-grandfather, a former slave who registered to vote in the same region where Selma took place. Ta-Nehisi Coates follows the ancestry of his Black Panther father to Virginia. Janet Mock follows the Mock surname to Louisiana and learns about her maternal roots in Hawaii.
By placing their ancestors’ lives in the larger context of history, our guests gain a deeper appreciation for their family narratives and see how those narratives illustrate the diversity of the black experience — a diversity that is even reflected in their DNA.
Guests: Scarlett Johansson, Paul Rudd and John Turturro
In this episode, three guests explore the tremendous challenges faced by their immigrant forebears. On her mother’s family tree, Scarlett Johansson ponders “what if” as she learns about her family’s ties to Denmark, Poland and the Holocaust. Paul Rudd follows his roots from Eastern Europe and Russia to England, where his grandfather changed his name from “Rudnitsky”. John Turturro sees the details of his mother’s early years in an orphanage and the harsh experiences of his father and grandparents in Italy and America.
In the end, each guest gains a greater understanding of how their immigrant ancestors laid the groundwork for their success.
Black Like Me
Guests: Bryant Gumbel, Tonya Lewis-Lee and Suzanne Malveaux
Three African-American guests delve deep into their family histories, discovering unexpected stories challenging our assumptions about black history.
Bryant Gumbel learns that his surname comes from a German Jewish community by way of his second great grandfather — a white man who arrived in America midway through the Civil War. Tonya Lewis-Lee, a descendant of free people of colour going back centuries on her father’s side, learns about her mother’s unknown heritage. Suzanne Malveaux discovers her roots include a black slave owner, a French-Canadian fur trader and a Native American from the Kaskaskia tribe.
Along the way, our guests are reminded there is no universal African American narrative.
Children of the Revolution
Guests: Lupita Nyong’o, Carmelo Anthony and Ana Navarro
Three guests explore how their family trees were shaped by political turmoil and violence. Lupita Nyong’o learns the full story of her father’s struggle for democracy in her native Kenya — including his imprisonment and torture — and then follows his line back to grapple with the complicated choices made by her great-grandfather. Carmelo Anthony unearths the ancestry of his activist father, tracing his roots back to Puerto Rico. Ana Navarro learns about her great-grandparents’ lives in Nicaragua.
Along the way, each guest comes to realize the complexities of history and how deeply personal it can be.
Relatives We Never Knew We Had
Guests: Gaby Hoffman and Téa Leoni
Gaby Hoffman traces the roots of the father she barely knew, exploring a long-held family rumour that her grandfather was illegitimate. DNA analysis also allows Téa Leoni to learn the true identities and stories of her maternal grandparents, a school teacher and paper mill worker-turned-World War II veteran.
Following the paper trail, both guests take these newfound lines back to the 18th century and further back over a thousand years.
Guests: Questlove, Dr. Phil McGraw and Charlayne Hunter-Gault
Three guests of disparate backgrounds dig into their southern roots. America’s south is where slavery and its aftermath shaped families both black and white.
Questlove learns the name of his original African ancestors in the astonishing tale of the Clotilda, the last known slave ship to arrive in the United States. Dr. Phil McGraw discovers his ancestors understood servitude from both sides. Charlayne Hunter-Gault learns the truth behind a family rumour concerning her maternal grandmother and an elicit affair.
These stories demonstrate how America’s racial history is shared by all – a harrowing chapter in human history with lessons for our current time.
Guests: Amy Schumer, Maya Rudolph and Aziz Ansari
Three guests who have found fame mining their family stories for comedy learn about ancestors who overcame immense suffering.
Amy Schumer learns of her great-grandparents who came to America in 1912 from now Ukraine and the trials of their life in the U.S. Maya Rudolph grapples with the struggle for freedom for her African-American ancestors and Aziz Ansari traces his ancestry back to southern India.
All three guests are struck by the contrast between themselves and their ancestors, whose names and stories they had never heard before.