Book Review: Finding Oprah's Roots: Finding Your Own

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I must confess that I am a big fan of Henry Louis Gates, Jr. I loved his two PBS series, African American Lives and African American Lives 2. So when I was at the library 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. While this book is a response to that question, 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 of 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 placing it in a historical context.

There is a documentary that you can also purchase through various online retailers that includes some of the research done for the book, as well as interviews with historians and genealogists, including well known genealogist, Tony Burroughs. This might be a good combination (showing the documentary and reading the book) to do with a beginner's genealogy class or at your local society.

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.

Finding Oprah's Roots: Finding Your Own, by Henry L. Gates. New York: Crown Publishers, 2007.

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