finding your roots: in search of our fathers

Finding Your RootsTuesday night’s season premiere of the hit PBS series “Finding Your Roots” with Henry Louis Gates Jr. kicked the season off by profiling celebrities Stephen King, Gloria Reuben and Courtney Vance, all of whom knew virtually nothing about their fathers and/or their father’s family. The first part of the program revealed to viewers a variety of circumstances that took the fathers out of the lives of each celebrity along with the hope of uncovering their family lineage. For Stephen King, he was just a young boy when his dad left the house for a pack cigarettes – never returning. Gloria Reuben was one of her father’s children from a second marriage. Her father was 73 years of age when Gloria was born and he passed away when she was quite young. For Courtney Vance, his father had been given away as a child and had always been in Courtney’s life until he committed suicide when Courtney was 30 years of age.

I suspected I would be able to relate to the many emotions everyone in this particular episode encountered based off of my own experience with my natural father and my step-father. And boy could I relate.

I was born in the Philippines to a mother and father who were both serving the country in the United States Air Force. My mother left the Philippines with me when I was only 5 months old, returning to the United States with an assignment at Fort Huachuca, Arizona. This is where she met my step-father, an officer in the United States Army, during a game of racquet ball. The rest is history. I was never without a father growing up since I had my step-father in my life from very early on. In fact, I had always believed my step-father to be my biological father until I was the age of 10. When I was growing up military dependents (children) were not required to obtain a military I.D. until the age of 10. On the day my mother and I went in to get my identification card the woman working in the office let the cat out of the bag in a big way. I recall her asking my mother for the adoption papers. Huh? What? What adoption papers?

“I’m not adopted,” I said.

Little did I know that she was asking for the papers that would show my step-father legally adopted me allowing me to continue using his surname on my I.D. There was never a legal adoption on his part, so my mom didn’t have any papers to show her. She did have some big explaining to do to me. This new revelation shook up my entire 10 year old world and I felt a wide range of emotions learning this new information. Thankfully I really loved both my mother and my step-father, who I continued to call Dad and decided to let any further curiosity about my biological father take a backseat. That was up until 10 years ago.

In 2002 I decided I wanted to reach out to my real Dad. My primary motivation for this was so that I would no longer be in the dark about any potential health issues on my father’s side. My mother had always had his SSN, so finding him wasn’t a challenge. After I was able to retrieve a mailing address I sent off my letter and waited for him to respond. When he did I remember a new set of emotions taking hold of me. We exchanged phone conversations and email for a short time and decided to meet in person. I was excited and nervous at the same time. I know parent-child relationships are fostered best when they begin from birth and during the child’s childhood. Although I was only 22 years of age, I was still an adult child meeting my father for the first time in my adult life. Long story short: building up that relationship like any other has had its highs and lows.

What I can really relate to most of all about the program is and was not knowing much about my biological father’s family. When we met and during the course of our relationship I asked questions about my grandparents and their parents and where everyone was from and who was still alive and how many cousins did I have? For a short while my father would answer these questions, but it involved a little teeth-pulling. I’ve since had to carry on at building the paternal side of my family tree with the use of Census records, military records and collaboration with distant cousins. Much to my father’s credit he did take a few DNA tests for me through African Ancestry (maternal and paternal) and an admixture DNA test via He has since fizzled on taking anymore.

Unlike Stephen, Gloria and Courtney, I still have my biological father here on this earth in the mind, body, flesh, spirit and so forth. I’m incredibly grateful for that and hope that we will continue to learn more about each other as time goes on. I’d really love some more oral history in learning about my grandparents and so on.

During the second half of the episode Gates decided to explore other lines of King, Reuben and Vance’s family histories during one of America’s ugliest chapters in history: slavery. Stephen King was happy to learn his southern Methodist ancestors left their home in Tennessee for Peru, Indiana most likely on moral grounds and their opposition to slavery in the south. Gloria Reuben had an incredibly moving moment when she hit the “genealogy lottery” by discovering her African ancestor’s name and age, something Gates dramatically says no African American person has been able to uncover. His remarks on her discovery caught me off guard. Although I imagine it to be a rare find, I do believe there are some other lucky African American researchers who have located their connection to the continent of Africa. With Courtney Vance viewers learn of a rebellious fugitive slave ancestor in his line who made his way through the Underground Railroad and later served in the United States Colored Troops (USCT).

In comparing what I know about my own ancestors dealings during the slave era and the Civil War they were just as varied as what was found in the program. Regretfully there are those that fought in the Confederacy and thankfully there were the ones who fought in the USCT like the ancestor of Courtney Vance. I was very intrigued by the photo of Lincoln’s funeral procession which was included in the book of life for Courtney Vance. Gates points out to him that his ancestor’s regiment was in attendance at the funeral and that he is probably somewhere to be found in the photo. I thought this was a really rich piece of information and was so curious to know what USCT regiments were in attendance at the funeral. Was it just his or could mine be found there somewhere too? Well I decided to phone the African American Civil War Memorial & Museum in D.C. to see where I could locate that info. Off the top of her head my two ancestors regiment was more than likely not there, but the woman I spoke with said she would look into it more and get back to me. I’ll let you know what I find out.

To wrap things up on this episode each celebrity gets the results of their DNA tests, a component I understand to be included in every episode this season. Stephen King finds out he is 99.9% European, Gloria Reuben discovers her DNA has more European than African and Vance finds an exact match on his Y-line (paternal ancestry) which he will continue to explore further. I’ve taken various DNA tests or had them taken on my behalf, so I could really grasp what was happening and what tests were being discussed which was a very good feeling. This is one of the features I will continue to look forward to as the season carries on.

For the first episode I’d say it was a great start to a very fascinating program.

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