Thursday, March 4, 2010

Faces of America Viewership - Influenced By Opinions About Dr. Gates?

[Note: this post is intended to generate dialog and discussion.  I don't often stray into opinion on this or any of my blogs, but there are times when I seek answers to questions from readers and colleagues and the only way to "jump start" such a process is to write a post that will include opinion.

Our community of genealogy bloggers has demonstrated the need for dialog around a variety of issues.  Dialog is good as long as it is civil and adds to our experiences as family historians and genealogists.  I strongly encourage readers to leave comments on this post.]

My question to my readers is this: on a personal level, has your opinion of Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. and his Cambridge arrest in July 2009 influenced the way in which you watched the Faces of America series?  Did you, anyone in your household or a friend refuse to watch Faces of America because they had a negative opinion of Dr. Gates stating that the arrest was motivated by racial profiling and his African-American heritage?

* * *
I have some opinions as to the arrest and how it played out last summer, but before I get to that, let me say this: I was able to separate my views of the arrest and how it was handled from the job that Dr. Gates did as host of Faces of America.  Unfortunately I've encountered many people who were unable to do so - in fact when I mention Dr. Gates' name to them in public recently, the face scrunches up or the eyes roll and they launch into a diatribe about Dr. Gates' his arrest and the ensuing involvement of the White House into a discussion of race relations.

While most of these people appear to be somewhat informed and were able to discuss the arrest issues competently and in detail, I found that overall they were uninformed as to Dr. Gates' body of work, especially his involvement with African American Lives and African American Lives 2.  I've always had - and continue to have - respect for the work that Dr. Gates has done.

But many times, people allow themselves to be impacted by a quickly formed opinion in terms of their latest interaction with a public figure.  Personally, I closely followed the news of the arrest and here is how I saw it: lots of people said lots of stupid stuff.  That's as plainly as I can put it.

Imagine that you had just traveled back from China (probably filming the Yo-Yo Ma portions of Faces of America) and you can't get into your own home.  You are tired.  You are cranky.  I've been there.  I've been in situations where I wasn't at my best.  Then imagine that you are confronted by police on your own property.  And imagine that your local police force has had a history of racial profiling.  And imagine that in your research you know factually that police forces engage in racial profiling.

I think you get my picture.  Dr. Gates was initially charged with "disturbing the peace" which can be very liberally used by police officers to cover a multitude of situations.  Do I think Dr. Gates was right in his reaction?  Yes, I do.  Because I've been in similar situations with police where I was very vocal concerning a situation.  And the situation involved lack of sleep and frustration.  Do I think the police reacted appropriately? Yes, I do.  I can understand how an officer with no information as to the property, property owner etc. might want to arrest someone who appears combative.  It all comes down to perception.

Unfortunately when the media gets hold of a story it can often spiral out of control.  However, there is good that came out of this incident: it did get the nation talking about race relations.  Very often this is a topic we don't want to discuss for a variety of reasons.

* * *

Whatever someone's opinion as to Dr. Gates, I hope they are able to put such opinion aside - be it positive or negative - and simply view Faces of America as a body of work that stands by itself to be judged on its own.

Photo: Photo of Henry Louis Gates. Jr. dated 18 April 2007.  Digital image.  Joe Irons via flickr.  Used under Creative Commons 3.0 license.

© 2010, copyright Thomas MacEntee


Heather Rojo said...

Personally, I can't think of many celebrities that haven't been involved with some sort of scandal. Heck, even our top politicians are involved with scandals, and we still continue to vote for them and listen to them. I see any TV personality as just a person, with just as many foibles as you or I. They shouldn't be put up on pedestals, because no one is perfect. There would be no one left on TV or film or radio or print if we only listened to the perfect. (Just look at our ancestors! LOL!)

Gini said...

I had no idea that this situation had even occured to Dr. Gates, however, had I known, it would not have played a role of my opinion of him. I feel that Dr. Gates is a wonderful man and I am grateful for all he has done.

No one is perfect, and like you said Thomas, we all have our moments and I could completely see his point of view on the situation and how he reacted.

My husband is a cop (not a racial profiler in anyway) but comes from the place of protection, so I can understand that prospective.

None the less, it would not have swayed my opinion of Dr. Gates in anyway, I have alot of respect for him.

Leslie Ann Ballou said...

I never knew who Dr. Henry Louis Gates, jr was until I watched Faces Of America. However I do remember the incident of someone being arrested trying to get into their own house now that you mentioned, but I didn't associate it with him.

It wouldn't have mattered anyway. I would watch if no matter who did the show.

Martin said...

I have a unique perspective since I know Dr. Gates and have done work for him. I've also written about that incident last summer. If there are two groups who think that respect from others should be absolute it would be police officers and Harvard professors. So, basically it was a pissing contest. So, I watched all four episodes. I don't think I agree with him on how he sees genealogical research and the results. However, it was fascinating to watch. Although I've had my Y and MtDNA done, I've not done an admixture. I'm afraid I'll come up 100% European which would be so boring.

Abba-Dad said...

When the show came on, my wife asked me if Dr. Gates was a known genealogist since neither of us knew who he was. When I checked later on Wikipedia I remembered the incident but not the scandal around it.

Since our current state of humanity seems to revolve around celebrity and scandal, I don't pay that much attention to what people say or do any more. Everyone seems to have an agenda and the political correctness of today is preposterous.

So to answer your question, not knowing and then later knowing who Dr. Gates is didn't change my view of the show. I think it was an interesting show that was pretty loose when it comes to really touching the touchy subjects. I would love to know how long it took to research each one of the 12 guests. I'm not sure that the vanity ancestries presented to some of the guests were fully researched but were used to give the show a wider appeal.

Tony said...

I was already highly anticipating the series before I made the connection that the host, and the man from the Cambridge incident were one and the same.

My opinion of that incident based on what I saw of it in the media was that Dr Gates overreacted to the situation.

I loved him in the show and thought he did a great job. I wish he would come and have a beer in my backyard!

Cheryl Fleming Palmer said...

I too am one of the ones who was unaware of the incident with Dr. Gates. Having said that, if I were aware, I don't believe it would have affected my decision to watch or think any differently about Dr. Gates and the program. If I were to do that every time there was a scandal, I would miss a lot in this world. There are two sides to every story and the media makes a charade of so much of it.

I thoroughly enjoyed Dr. Gates and felt so excited to see someone, anyone, do a program on genealogy. Even though researchers wish they would have shared so much more on the program, we need to be grateful for this, a beginning (hopefully) of future things to come.

There is nothing wrong with wanting more from a program, I think it is natural. This brings us, with any luck, better programs.

Elyse Doerflinger said...

To be honest, I didn't even connect Dr. Gates' arrest with the show. I didn't even realize until you mentioned it.

Honestly, I think both Gates and the police acted poorly in the situation. He, as understandably tired, cranky, and angry he must have been, still acted poorly. You should always be polite and calm when dealing with a police officer - because the police officer has a lot of power. By acting in such a manner, no matter how understandably, he risked being arrested.

But at the same time the police should have taken a chance to figure out who the home belonged to. It would not of taken long for the police to find that out. If they had just listened to Gates then things would not have escalated to the point that it did. The cops had no choice but to arrest a man that was combative, angry, and seemingly willing to do anything.

My opinion of him hasn't be turned in anyway. I have truly put the arrest incident behind me because both parties over reacted and acted dumb. It is in the past though, so just let it go.

In the end, I would've watched the show as long as it was on the topic of genealogy.

Carol said...

I like others had no idea that the host of this program, was the gentlemen involved in last years "upset".

I don't like to think that it would have influenced my opinion of the show.

That said, I caught about 10 minutes of the first, most of the second, none of show 3 or 4.


Because as interesting as parts of show 2 were, it was not enough to draw me away from my computer and my own blog writing and research and surfing.

I will not be watching the internet version either, my connections is just not fast enough, the stress (and time commitment) of waiting for the load is just too much, and again, I don't have that much interest.

I probably won't do the next show either, that WDYTYA from Ancestry. If anyone really cares to know how I feel about that, ya better email me privately, cause it sure is off topic here.

Linda McCauley said...

Dr. Gates arrest in July didn't really enter my mind as having anything to do with Faces of America. Maybe that's because I still don't understand why the police officer couldn't have straightened that situation out at the house without an arrest. Doesn't seem like it should have been that difficult to determine it was his house and say sorry we bothered you. As for Dr. Gates reaction - in the same situation I'm pretty sure I might have disturbed the peace myself.

That being said, I didn't love the show. I thought there were too many participants for 4 shows. About the time I would get interested in someone's story they switched to someone else. The DNA stuff was really info overload.

Midge Frazel said...

As I live in Massachusetts, I felt the full force of the news story (over and over)concerning the incident referenced here. Having watched African American Lives 2 some time ago and knew that Dr. Gates was involved in a new project, I hoped that his reputation as a historian wouldn't be tarnished.

Both parties were wrong. I hadn't thought of jet lag. I am not a fan of city life.

As for his opinions, it is expected that he would have developed one or more BECAUSE he has a doctorate. You must defend yourself and your work constantly during and after the process.

Massachusetts for all its great history is not an easy place to live. But, then, I wasn't born here. Just as Roger Williams who couldn't get out of here fast enough.

John said...

Did the incident change my opinion of the show? No.

I don't think it was Gates' fault, but the shows seemed too disjointed and not enough actual research was shown. It would have been nice to see how they arrived at some of the ancestors showcased. That said, it was nice to see genealogy getting airtime, and as they say, any press is good press.

Kathleen Brandt, Professional Genealogist said...

Thanks for bringing up this topic. I find it interesting the number of family genealogists who didn't even make the connection, or weren't acquainted with Dr. Gates. I also find it interesting that those who have an adverse opinion do not really speak out which is the only way others will learn of their perspective. Hopefully the AA Carnival will open up conversations of candor.

The incident did not cloud my respect for Dr. Gates' work. Having said that, I don't find him in the right and yet I don't justify the police officers actions. Wishing for mutual respect here: respect for the position of an officer, and respect for the daily burdens of others.

According to most large city statistics African American neighbors (especially men) are often erroneously questioned far more than their non-African American neighbors. Gates' exhaustion may not have been limited to just his travels.

Perhaps, his exhaustion was exacerbated by a life long need to prove himself "over and over again" as M.Smolenyak stated in her blog when mentioning free African Americans who had to show their "freedom papers" repeatedly.

Yes...I'm making a direct correlation. Only because it is the same. It happens all day every day. Even in KC this issue has been in the news daily for the past 2 weeks due to a serial rapists who happens to be black, resulting in practically every black man (not fitting the rapist's description)living in or visiting the middle class neighborhood has become an immediate suspect.

Although I wrote a blog regarding African American free-ancestors which hints that they may have been proud to show their papers, in the 21st century this constant proving of oneself can wear a person down like a bar of soap.

However, a nation needs to be governed, and proper respect of a persons position, as a police officer, should be deemed as important. Yet, respect must be reciprocal.


Kerry said...

I'm surprised too at the number of folks who either hadn't heard of the incident or didn't know who Dr. Gates was. It goes to show, though, that being involved in the online genealogical community is a great way to share information of all kinds.

I did a blog post about "Faces of America," and got some negative feedback from a few readers (although most of my readers are left over from my previous blogging days, so they're not genealogists). I was very surprised.

Genealogists, of ALL people, surely know that we can't judge one man's character (or life's work) based on just a few minutes of his life. That goes for the police officer as well as Dr. Gates. That's one of the advantages we have as genealogists: perspective.

Renate said...

In most cases I don't read the comments of others before I post my own, but for some reason, this time, I did. That said, I have to concur with Kathleen on most of the points she made. I do feel, however, that the police exacerbated the situation by pressing Dr. Gates after they realized he was, indeed, in his own home. But, that's another issue...

I really just wanted to say that it never even occurred to me that people might choose to watch, or not to watch the Faces of America series based on last year's incident. Call me an oddball, perhaps (I've been called worse!), but for me, the program wasn't about Dr. Gates. It was about genealogy and family research. As a person who is deeply involved with both, I try to expose myself to any relevant stimuli which might strengthen, or enhance my own work. If I find that something isn't helpful to me, I try to pass it along to others for whom it might be, and then I just move on from it! But that's just me.

I've voiced my opinion about the FOA program on my own blog. See Basically, I, like others, just wanted to see Dr. Gates and the writers extend this opportunity for free research assistance to some of the many "regular folk" who are making personal and financial sacrifices to do this work. Many others have voiced this request, and one researcher from our community actually had the opportunity to speak to Dr. Gates about it recently, so we'll see what unfolds!