“What made America and what made us” are the questions Faces of America aims to answer in this PBS four-part series hosted by Henry Louis Gates Jr. The series unravels the ancestry and genealogy of 12 well-known Americans and follows their family’s journeys to America – however far back or far away they go. Profiles include:
- Elizabeth Alexander (poet, professor and current chair of the African American Studies Department at Yale University)
- Mario Batali (chef and restaurant owner)
- Stephan Colbert (host and executive producer of The Colbert Report)
- Louise Erdrich (author of 13 novels plus volumes poetry, short stories, and children’s books)
- Malcolm Gladwell (author of four New York Times bestsellers)
- Eva Longoria (actress)
- Yo-Yo Ma (musician)
- Queen Noor (international public servant and an outspoken voice on issues of world peace and justice)
- Mike Nichols (director, including The Graduate)
- Dr. Mehmet Oz (host of The Dr. Oz Show and Vice-Chair and Professor of Surgery at Columbia University)
- Meryl Streep (actress)
- Kristi Yamaguchi (Olympic gold-medalist and figure skater)
The story that has encaptured me the most is how Kristi Yamaguchi’s family came to America. Both her mother and father lived in Japanese interment camps in the 1940s and her mother was actually born in a U.S. camp on New Years Eve (she was the first baby born in that year and was written about in a newspaper article). Her father’s family – which included 11 children – owned 175 acres of farmland in California and was doing quite well until encampment. Yamaguchi’s grandfather served in the U.S. military during WWII, with 16,000 other Japanese soldiers serving in the Armed Forces, which is so strange to think that Japanese soldiers were fighting for a country who relocated their families and friends and were against their home country and yet the Japanese still wanted to prove their American loyalty. On the flip side, Yamaguhci had relatives who were fighting in the same war only on the Japanese side and a chunk of her family lived only forty miles away from Nagasaki, which the U.S. attacked with its infamous atomic bomb.
Another story that has interested me is Queen Noor, whose family came from Syria. Her grandfather and his family were featured in a human interest article in the Boston Globe in 1894 about a typical Syrian immigrant family. The pictures seen in the article that depicted her grandfather and his sons are seen as very exotic and interesting because Middle-Eastern cultures intrigued the American audience during this time, unlike portrayals of any other culture living in America, including Japanese and Irish, who when illustrated were characterized in very demeaning ways. Queen Noor is astounded by the fact that nowhere in American journalism during this time the Irish were given good press, which Henry Louis Gates Jr explains “the Irish were caricatured in very demeaning ways” at which Queen Noor responds “Just like we [Syrians/Middle Eastern peoples] are today” (Episode Two).
I am amazed at the tragedy, heartbreak and prejudice against immigrants that America has experienced. Yet without these brave people America as we know it (and you and I) would not be as we are today. Many of us like to think the story and history of America’s people is genteel and respectable when in fact it is much grittier than we would like to think. Amidst all the despair and setbacks immigrants in America have (and still) face, it is these people that generate the luminosity and grandeur of the American experience.
You can watch Faces of America on PBS.org. Once Episodes Three and Four are up I’ll post those too.
Note: I’m not paid by PBS for writing about their series, it is just something that I wanted to share with you all.