Watch African American Lives

African American Lives is a genealogical research show featuring revelations about the family histories of famous African Americans. Conducted by prominent historian Dr. Henry Louis Skip Gates Jr., it features such luminaries as Mae Jemison, Chris Tucker, Oprah Winfrey, and Quincy Jones.

The miniseries contains eight episodes, and each episode begins with Dr. Gates giving a brief overview of the guests whose family histories are to be revealed. The miniseries' scene structure breaks with several that are typical of documentaries, namely in the way interviews are intentionally nonlinear and often jump between guests, mimicking storytelling techniques more closely associated with action-packed movies.

After Dr. Gates' brief overview of each guest, he visits with them. He conducts a very casual conversation with the guest, probing politely about their family history. Guests are provided an opportunity to speak at length about their formative years, and they often do. Their stories are supplied credence by archival footage, press clippings, and photos and other personal memorabilia from their private collections.

Guests also discuss a wide variety of other subjects concerning themselves. They pay special attention to how they went about acquiring the education and experience with which they credit their professional success, who their mentors were/are, to what degree they comprehend the exact nature of their personal ancestry, and what they would most like to know. They discuss gaps in their family history and touch upon missing details about their past which have not survived the ages, or were for some reasons blatantly omitted by their parents and grandparents.

Dr. Gates and his team dig into the guests' family histories, utilizing all the available genealogical resources. They also employ a variety of newfangled techniques, namely DNA analysis. They consult census bureau data, hospital records, newspaper clippings, old deeds, etc. They study guests' genetic information, roughly pinpointing guests' deep ancestry. With all the info arranged into a cohesive whole, a fully arranged image of the guests' lineage is revealed.

1 Season, 4 Episodes
February 2, 2008
Cast: Henry Louis Gates, Pamela Arkin, Ben Carson, Whoopi Goldberg
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African American Lives Full Episode Guide

  • Episode four presents fascinating discoveries about participants' lineages, thanks to DNA analysis, including a groundbreaking study linking Professor Gates to a powerful medieval Irish warlord and evidence that Peter Gomes' direct paternal line traces back to a Portuguese Jew who fled the country in the early 1500s to escape the Inquisition.

  • Episode three reveals stories of participants' ancestors during the early years of the United States, including a riveting account of life in slavery by Morgan Freeman's great-grandmother, unearthed within the records of the Depression-era Works Progress Administration, and Peter Gomes' ancestors, who were freed and supported by Quaker families in Virginia in the late 1700s.

  • Episode two continues to trace the guests' lineages back through the late 1800s to the Civil War, featuring such stories as that of Chris Rock's great-great-grandfather, a black Civil War veteran who was twice elected to the South Carolina State Legislature, and Don Cheadle's great-great-grandparents, who, as Chickasaw Freedmen, struggled to build lives for themselves in Oklahoma after being excluded from the tribal rolls.

  • Episode One focuses on stories of the participants' ancestors from the early 20th century.

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African American Lives is available to watch and stream on PBS. You can also buy, rent African American Lives on demand at Amazon Prime online.