"Where are you from?" That's the question that Henry Louis Gates asked famous Americans like Morgan Freeman, Stephen Colbert and Eva Longoria in his PBS specials, "Faces of America" and "African American Lives." The shows revealed some surprising twists and turns in the family trees from which American fame blossomed. But more than that, they taught us something about American identity.
The shows demonstrated that American identity is not found in a simple claim. American identity is revealed in our search to find an answer to a question: "Where are you from?"
My friends who live in other countries often tell me that Americans are obsessed with genealogy. They're right. Drawing up family trees is as much of a pastime as knitting or collecting baseball cards. Those same friends tell me that Americans are just confused, and the fact that we so often search for our roots shows that nothing holds us together.
What's clear from Professor Gates' research is that there are many answers to the question, "where are you from?" We come from slaves and slave owners (and sometimes both), Irish peasants, Japanese farmers, Mexican farm workers, Syrian sojourners, Spanish explorers, Italian miners and Native people from the Great Plains.
But we don't find the essence of American identity in the specific details of how we got from there to here, or from then to now. What we share in the past is that we come from someplace else. But what holds us together today is that we embrace, and even celebrate the search to understand where were come from. We take up that enterprise knowing full well that there are lots of different answers. And we share a belief that whatever we turn up in our search can be folded into a larger American story. And that story begins with a question.