Henry Louis Gates Jr. speaks on heritage and identity

Photo by Makeda Sandford

By Tamsen Todisco, Copy Desk Chief – [email protected]edu
Ancestry expert and noted genealogy researcher Henry Louis Gates Jr. spoke in the Kimmel Arena Thursday night to address heritage and identity.
Mary Grant, UNC Asheville chancellor, kicked off the event by highlighting the work of the Asheville Student Committee on Racial Equality emphasizing the gratitude the community has for their efforts. The audience responded with a standing ovation. The Center for Diversity Education organized the ASCORE recognition and the Gates event.
“We are here for a conversation and a celebration of the 20th anniversary of the CDE,” Grant said.
Grant said higher education has an important role in creating a level playing field and recognized the young leaders who are making a difference today. Community members, teachers and students Philip Cooper, Lucia Daugherty, Dulce Miriam Rosas Porras, Samantha Singer and Yetta Williams received ASCORE awards for leadership.
“Education is, by far, one of the most powerful tools that we have to attempt to create a level playing field, to attempt to open those doors of access wide,” Grant said.
In addition to honoring the award recipients, Grant introduced the evening’s speakers, James Ferguson, Deborah “Dee” James and Gates.
Ferguson founded ASCORE, the high school group that united to desegregate Asheville in the 1960s. He served as president of the group in 1960.
“We were not heroes, but crazy young people who saw something wrong and wanted to do something about it,” Ferguson said.
He said they could not have made the changes they did without support from their community, notably their parents. ASCORE sought help from the only two black lawyers in Asheville at the time, who he said influenced his decision to go to law school.
“‘You do all you need to do, and if you need us, call us,’” Ferguson said the lawyers told him.
With that support, he said they were empowered to fight the injustices they saw in Asheville. He learned the importance of self-confidence when becoming agents of change in the community.
“We came up in a time when we had no choice but to make some noise,” Ferguson said.
Ferguson said the youth of today must still work to make the world a better place. He congratulated the awardees.
“Though there has been change,” Ferguson said, “there is much change that has yet to be done.”
James, who teaches women, gender and sexuality studies at UNCA, introduced Gates, listing his many academic credentials.
“But I want to ask what I ask my students, the ‘so what?’ question,” James said.
She answered with a Frederick Douglass quote about issues of identity and self-verification.
“‘A want of information concerning my own (age) was a source of unhappiness to me even during childhood,’” James read. “‘The white children could tell their ages. I could not tell why I ought to be deprived of the same privilege.’”
James said Gates’ message is important to everyone in the development of a cultural and individual identity.
“What (Gates) has to say will provide us with more to think about as we labor to discern who we are, who we are becoming and who we will strive to be,” James said.
Gates took the stage and opened by giving credit to the ASCORE members. Gates said history is composed of small narratives, not just heroic tales from notable individuals
“Heroes are people like you guys,” said Gates, motioning toward the row of Asheville integrationists.
Gates told the audience how he became passionate about genealogy and discovering his roots. At age nine, at his grandfather’s wake, he said he looked at the corpse.
“How someone with this phenotype,” Gates said, “how someone who looked so white could be my grandpa?”
With his parents help, Gates said he then began a mission to discover where he came from.
In the ’70s, Gates said the TV show Roots further stimulated his interest in heritage. For a black person, tracing genealogy could only go so far. To find out what African tribe he had descended from was an amazing discovery, and when a Harvard professor offered to do just that, Gates said he jumped at the opportunity.
After that, Gates said he combined his love of genealogy with the DNA tracing to chart the ancestry of prominent black people. With the help of famous connections, namely Quincy Jones and Oprah Winfrey, and corporate sponsors like Coca-Cola, Gates was able to produce his series for PBS.
Deborah Miles, director of the CDE, concluded the talks and urged the audience to consider the effects they make on the community regarding inclusion and diversity.
Thomas Priester, outreach worker at Buncombe County schools, member of Hall Fletcher PTO and Racial Equity committee, said he was surprised by some of Gates’ research results.
Gates described the common myth in black families attributing straight hair and high cheekbones to Native American ancestry, then showed DNA numbers to dispute that claim. The straight hair actually came from white ancestry, which is much more common than Native American influence. This, Priester said, was something he had been told about his family as well.
“Also, the fact that one in three black men in America descended from a white man,” Priester said. “I was surprised to hear that.”
Lisa Smith, a medication aide at Givens Estates, said she had watched Gates’ documentaries in the past. She was interested to come to the event and hear what Gates would talk about beyond his documentary topics.
“It was interesting that that he gave the story of how he got involved in it and how other people can find their own history,” Smith said.
Smith said she is interested in genealogy and would like to learn more about her ancestry, but since she was adopted, it is difficult.
Priester said the cost of investigating heritage can be an obstacle for people who don’t have affluent friends, as Gates does. He hopes to learn more so he can share stories with his children about where they came from.
While contributing to the black community via ancestry studies, Gates emphasized using intellect and knowledge to inspire others.
“I know the electricity,” Gates said, “that you get when you find your ancestors.”