27 July 2013

"Who Do You Think You Are?" Returns

Note: A slightly different version of this post originally appeared here.

A few days ago, I watched the somewhat triumphant return of "Who Do You Think You Are?" to cable television. The season premiere featured pop singer Kelly Clarkson researching her great-great-great grandfather Isaiah Rose, a Union soldier who was captured at the battle of Decatur, Georgia and sent to the infamous Confederate prison camp at Andersonville, only to escape and eventually become a county sheriff and an Ohio state senator. You can watch the full episode on the show's website by clicking on the above link. The show, which features celebrities discovering their genealogies and family histories, is a big hit on British TV, but the American version was saddled with low ratings and disappeared from NBC's summer schedule after last season. Apparently, however, the show has enough of a fan base in the U. S. to justify a relaunch on the cable channel TLC.

On the plus side, the show is interesting and thought provoking. It's motivated me to begin researching my own family history again, something I have tried to do, off and on, with varying degrees of success, for many years now. On the minus side, I do have several beefs with the show:

First, it's built on a formula. Every episode begins with Big Famous Celebrity who has a lingering question about his or her family history. What really happened to cousin Fred when he disappeared for six months in World War II? Was Great Aunt Ida really a show girl? Was Great Great Great Grandpa Leroy an escaped slave? So, Big Famous Celebrity traipses off across the country (and often around the world) to meet with historians, archivists, librarians, and genealogists who seemingly by magic and on command produce documents that provide another piece to the puzzle. There are twists and turns. There are dead ends. At the end, however, the mystery is solved by a Stunning Revelation that leaves Big Famous Celebrity choked up or teary eyed on camera. A sadder but wiser man or woman, he or she returns home to the bosom of his or her family to reflect on What We Have All Learned From This. Fade to black, roll credits, cue commercial.

Second, it focuses on celebrities. Why are the family histories of actors or pop singers necessarily more interesting than those of truck drivers, nurses, or teachers, for example? I 'm just a newbie genealogist and family historian, but I'll bet nearly everybody has someone interesting in their family tree if they go back far enough. My father flew fighter planes in World War II. His mother, my grandmother, had chronic, crippling arthritis that left her bedridden much of the time, but she still raised two children and helped support her family during the Great Depression by writing poetry, short stories, and advertising jingles for contests and promotions. One of my ancestors signed Scotland's declaration of independence—some 400 years before the American one. I think the show would gain, not lose, emotional impact if it focused on ordinary people rather than on celebrities. What if each week Joe or Josephine Average from Des Moines or Tampa or Buffalo found out that they were related to a scientist or a millionaire or a baseball player? Or that they were related to other ordinary good, decent, compassionate, quietly heroic people? Wouldn't that motivate other people across America to find out more about their families?

Third, it presents a distorted picture of genealogical research. At the beginning of the hour, the celebrity has a problem. At the end of the hour (less, if you deduct time for commercials), the celebrity has a solution. He or she jets around the country and around the world to meet with the experts who have just the information our protagonist needs.. At least once per episode, someone suggests that the celebrity consult Ancestry.com, the show's sponsor, and our hero always finds at least one useful nugget of information there. Again, I'm just a beginner at this, but I do have sense and experience enough to know that it can't be that easy for us mere mortals. I've just started using Ancestry.com and its Family Tree Maker software myself, and they are indeed wonderful tools, but they are not the whole story.

I 'd guess that each episode of this show took months of planning and preparation. Someone would have to research the historical and genealogical problems involved and figure out who had the documents, information, and expertise to solve them. I'm not a pop star with the resources and budget of a production company and a major TV network behind me. I can't fly all around the world to research documents and meet with experts. I expect that in my search there will be dead ends and disappointments. There will be documents I need that aren't at the county courthouse, the state bureau of vital statistics, or digitized in an online database somewhere. If they are, I might have to spend my own money and wait weeks for copies. Yet I'm willing to take those risks because I want to know more about my family. I'll just have to do genealogy the old-fashioned way.

Will I keep watching the TLC reboot? Probably. A flawed show about genealogy on TV is better than no show about genealogy on TV. However, after watching the pilot episode of the reboot, I can tell that none of the flaws from the original American version have been corrected. It's still structured far too much like a patently unreal "reality show" that relies on contrived situations and cheap, transparent emotional manipulation of the celebrity protagonist and the audience. I wish the American version were more like the British version, which feels more like a serious documentary and less like an episode of "Real Genealogists of Beverly Hills" or something. Here for example, is a link to the British version of WDYTYA and its episode featuring J. K. Rowling. To me, the storytelling style seems more restrained, and the filmmakers seem more willing to step back and let events speak for themselves rather than manipulating the star and the audience to a predetermined conclusion. As a result, I think the show gains significant emotional impact. Real life can be exciting if we just experience it for what it is rather than trying to make it into something it isn't.

22 June 2013

Back to the Drawing Board

If anyone besides me is still reading this blog, you may wonder why it went silent for about six months. What happened? The short answer: real life.

You'll recall that in my last post in early December of 2012, I had just ordered a Y-DNA  test kit from Family Tree DNA with the goal of finding out whether or not Sharon Leslie Morgan and I shared a common ancestor—specifically my great-great grandfather, James E. Leslie (1823-1875) of Lowndes County Alabama, whom Sharon believed had fathered a child with one of his African-American slaves. That child, Sharon believed, was her great grandfather, Tom Leslie.

I received the test kit a few days later, mailed off a sample, and eagerly awaited results via e-mail. December went by. No results. The first weeks of January went by. No results. Then on the evening of 12 January 2013, I became the victim of a violent crime—a home invasion that turned my life upside down. It was hard to think about genealogy after that, but once things began to settle down a bit, I e-mailed Family Tree DNA to ask about results. They replied that they had never received my sample! They sent another test kit, but after the home invasion, my family and I were very concerned about my safety, so with the full support of my family and the incredible generosity of my brother Allen, I began making plans to relocate to Charlotte, NC. At first I promised myself I would send off another sample before I left South Carolina. Then things got busy and complicated, and I ran out of time before leaving. I promised myself I would send off a sample the minute I got to Charlotte. When a few weeks went by and I received an e-mail from Sharon asking about results, I realized that in all the ruckus of moving and relocating I had completely forgotten about the sample.

I promptly sent off another sample and this time I arranged to track the package from the post office to the testing lab. A few more weeks of waiting went by, and when I was finally notified of the results, they were . . .


My DNA was compared with the DNA of other people who had submitted samples to the same lab, in order to identify people with whom I shared significant portions of DNA and to whom I might be related. Only one person on the list of names I was given had the last name Leslie, and he was NOT Sharon's cousin Frank Leslie. Sharon and I both had difficulty interpreting the results, so Sharon submitted the data to one of her contacts who knows about DNA testing. He e-mailed her to say that it looked to him as if there was no relationship. Sharon was incredibly disappointed because she was sure she had solved a longstanding riddle in her family history, only to find that she was mistaken. I was disappointed for her sake, but to be honest, I was also relieved. It was bad enough that my great-great grandfather enslaved other human beings and fought for a government that defended that enslavement as a soldier in the Confederate army. At least, I thought, he didn't heap additional disgrace on himself by fathering a child with one of the women he enslaved and then denying paternity, as the social code of the time, place, and race demanded.

In the last few days, however, Sharon has e-mailed me to say that she has been in contact with others who are knowledgeable about DNA test results, and they say IT IS POSSIBLE that we are related; perhaps not as directly as having the same great-great grandfather, but perhaps still related. Or it could be that our two family histories are bound up together, even if the relationship was not biological. We STILL do not have a definitive answer to this question. What I think we need is to find someone who is knowledgeable about this area, submit the data to them, and accept their decision as a final arbiter.

In the meantime, however, there is still much to do. I am not certain who James E. Leslie's parents were, and the trail appears to go cold after him. Charlotte, however, is only about an hour's drive from Statesville, the county seat of Iredell County, NC where my great-great grandfather was born. Who were his parents? When and why did he come to Alabama from North Carolina? I think it is time I reached out to The Genealogical Society of Iredell County and visited the Iredell County courthouse to see if I can find the answers to these questions.

The search is on. The game is afoot.