Fall 2018

“Finding Your Roots”: Narratives of Self and Community


Carey Aubert (Section 01)
Rick A. Lopez (Section 01)


This course draws inspiration from the PBS show Finding your Roots, hosted by Henry Louis Gates. In each episode, celebrities speak to Gates about what they think they know about their family’s history. Gates’s team of researchers then undertakes archival research and DNA analysis that sometimes leads to surprising discoveries. Each episode becomes a window into global histories of migration, society, nation, and empire. Martha Stewart, for example, discovered that she had Muslim ancestors in central Poland, and Wanda Sykes, who spoke of her strong identity as a proud descendant of Black slaves, was taken aback when she discovered not only that her Black ancestors enjoyed freedom at least as far back at the mid-1700s, but that they had been slave owners. Gates used these examples to explore the deep roots of Islam in Europe and the complex history of Black slavery in America. Through research, story-telling and conversations, celebrity guests, and even Gates himself, learned to see their present and their past as windows into larger trends in history. 

In this course students will practice various strategies for recovering and narrating their own stories of home and of family (with a broad understanding of what “home” and “family” mean). Next, students will draw inspiration from Gates as they conduct genealogical research, store their findings in structured databases, and read histories of migration, race, and nation formation in various parts of the world. Students will have the opportunity to get their DNA analyzed and will choose what they wish to share about their findings. Each student then will select a particular person, moment, place, or time that they learned about during their genealogical research. This will become the subject of a historical research project based on physical and digital archival sources. Students will finish the course by reflecting upon how the things they have learned about their diverse pasts shape how they think about the changes and challenging transitions they are currently experiencing as the newest members of the Amherst College community. Two class meetings per week.

Fall semester. Professor Lopez.


Attention to Issues of Class, Attention to Issues of Gender and Sexuality, Attention to Issues of Race, Attention to Research, Attention to Writing


2022-23: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2018