Fall 2020

"Finding Your Roots": Narratives of Self and Community

Moodle site: Course


Rick A. Lopez (Section 01)


In each episode of the PBS show Finding your Roots, celebrities speak with host Henry Louis Gates about their family’s history. Gates’s team of researchers then undertakes archival research and DNA analysis that sometimes leads to surprising discoveries. Rather than fetishize lineage, each episode of Finding your Roots and a similar show called Who Do You Think You Are? walks guests through the process of research and discovery, and offers insight into global histories of migration, society, nation, and empire. In one episode, for example, Martha Stewart discovered that she had Muslim ancestors in central Poland, which became an opportunity to explore the deep roots of Islam in Europe. In another, the comedian Wanda Sykes spoke proudly of her identity as descendant of Black slaves. She was surprised to learn not only that her Black ancestors enjoyed freedom at least as far back as the mid-1700s, but, to her horror, they were slave owners. Gates used this as an opportunity to explore the complex history of Black slavery in America. Another famous comedian, Margaret Cho, spoke with pride about her Korean roots, only to learn that her ancestors who had migrated to San Francisco from Korea were descendants of Chinese migrants. This points to ways migration patterns within Asia contradict ethno-nationalist narratives within the region. The actress Jessica Alba guessed that, as a Latina, she had a complicated heritage, but Gates found that her Mexican past was even more revealing of global empires than Alba had anticipated. While some of Gates’ guests found surprises, others found their family stories confirmed by DNA and archival research. Through research, story-telling and conversations, the celebrity guests, and even Gates himself, learned to see their present and their past as part of larger trends in history.

In this course you will practice various strategies for recovering and narrating your own stories of home and of family (with a broad understanding of what “home” and “family” mean). Next, you will conduct genealogical research, store your findings into structured databases, and read histories of migration, race, and nation formation in various parts of the world. You will have the opportunity to get your DNA analyzed and will choose whether to share your findings. Next, you will select a particular person, moment, place or time that you discovered through your genealogical research. This will become the subject of a historical research project using digital archives. You will finish the course by reflecting upon how the things you and your peers discovered about your diverse pasts shape how you think about the changes and challenging transitions you are currently experiencing as the newest members of the Amherst College community.

To learn about a past iteration of the course, visit https://www.amherst.edu/ amherst-story/magazine/issues/ 2019-spring/college-row/rooted

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 2019, Fall 2020