Thursday, February 18, 2010

On the Bookshelf: Finding Oprah's Roots. Finding Your Own

I must confess that I am a big fan of Henry Louis Gates, Jr.  I loved his PBS series, African American Lives. So when I was at the library the other day I decided to check out the book, Finding Oprah's Roots: Finding Your Own.

Gates states that he wrote this book as a response to the many people who came up to him and asked about how they too could research their ancestry.  But I would caution that this is not your typical genealogical how to book.  There are no easy to follow instructions that take you from one step to the next.  In this book, Gates uses the power of storytelling, telling the story of Oprah's life and ancestry, to show what you could do with your own family history.  Yes, he talks about resources but they are in the context of how they were used to find information on Oprah's family tree.  This is probably not a book for the beginner because of its lack of clear concise steps.  But it is a good book to remind someone who is already pursuing their genealogy, what can be found.

The best part of the book is the weaving of genealogy with history.  Gates is a historian.  He has looked at  people in relation to trends, migrations, etc.  He talks about genealogy being the study of individuals, their lives, what they have done, how they lived. In this book he takes some of the individual facts from Oprah's history and explains them in the context of what is going on in history.  He talks about one of her ancestors who was able to buy land and farm.  This story is made more meaningful  in the context of Reconstruction and the harsh reality of sharecropping. This is how the story of your ancestor's life comes alive-by including it in historical context.  Adding social history to your family history. 

Gate's book reminds one the importance of adding that social history, learning what was going on in the history of the world and how it affected your ancestor's life. His book is a good reminder that we are genealogists but we are also historians.

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