Sunday, May 2, 2010

Who Do You Think You Are? Episode 7 - My Thoughts

The 7th and final episode of NBC's Who Do You Think You Are? with Spike Lee was broadcast this past Friday, 30 April 2010, and I wanted to put my impressions down in a blog post.  I'm encouraging my other genealogy blogging colleagues to do the same or if you don't have your own blog, add your comments below.
  • PLUS:  I was happy see another subject with African-American and slave ancestry on a WDYTYA episode.  It is my strong belief that despite the miniseries Roots over 30 years, there is not enough exposure to this segment of the genealogy field which has its own unique set of research challenges.
  • MINUS:  I wanted to see more than just Spike Lee's family with him on the way to the cemetery.  I wanted to see his children actively involved with research their roots.
  • PLUS:  The research plan executed for this episode seemed sound and it probably is how I would have pursued the research if Spike Lee were my client.
  • MINUS:  The surname change from Woodall to Jackson was never explained.  The person viewing with me at home (who really wanted to watch the movie Die Mommie Die! instead), asked how someone would change their name in the 1880s - was a court filing involved etc.?  I wish the writers at least touched upon how surname changes came about and why.
  • PLUS: Seeing Spike meet his presumed 3rd cousin 2 times removed in person and discussing their common heritage.
  • MINUS: Why wasn't more done to verify the fact that Samuel Griswold was the father of Matilda Griswold? Could a DNA test have been run to confirm markers between Spike Lee and his presumed cousin?  Perhaps the cousin didn't want to participate in the DNA test? I think this sets a bad example for the more novice genealogy researcher to make assumptions without working towards a stronger set of facts as proof.
While the recaps and "coming ups" didn't bother me as much, I am hoping that for Season 2 they really do minimize them.

© 2010, copyright Thomas MacEntee


Anonymous said...

Hi Thomas,

I also liked that two of the episodes featured African American researchers. Still, marginalization exists in the genealogical community.

Sometimes we ask much of our TV programs. However, a good producer would have included more seniors and children throughout the series.

The producers should have a website dedicated to providing additional info and forum for questions. Perhaps they were counting on to furnish that.

Overall, I enjoyed the series; S J Parker's being my least favorite. I'm looking forward to season 2.

"Guided by the Ancestors"

LauraLeigh said...

Oh Tom I just gotta comment on this episode.

First of all with all the hype it was given, in my opinion it did not live up to it's hype!

Second of all, I like you find the episodes with slavery interesting. I have a friend right now I am trying to help, so this always interests me.

Third the difference between my friend and Spike Lee is definitely ATTITUDE!!! When Spike met his cousin at the end and told her he had no respect or love for this man, why did he have to say that to her? She had nothing to do with the slavery except she came from that line. It just really bothered me.

At the beginning of each show it is said "Who do you know who you are if you don't know where you came from?" Didn't Spike get on the show to find out where he came from? For anyone who was in The United States in the 1860's we were all a part of slavery. I just felt there was no need for his comment. Plus unlike Susan Sarandon's which was my favorite, he seemed to want things handed to him for who he was. Just was turned off by his attitude.

I do want to comment on the name change, I have one of those in my family. I have had that same question about how they were able to discover, and verify but have not been able to contact the people who did the research. And it is side line, so not on the top of the list at the moment.

I loved the series, though for the most part.


Craig Manson said...

I agree with you, Thomas. I thought we were left out on a limb with respect to the Griswold connection and the supposed cousin. On the whole, though, I think this episode and the series have been fairly well done.

Thomas MacEntee said...


I will take your 2 cents worth or 25 cents worth anytime - what great comments!

I think the concept of surname changes needs to be research - the motivations, the mechanics etc. In modern times we automatically think it requires a court filing but not so back in the late 19th century.

Thomas MacEntee said...


You are right about the marginalization. One issue that pained me was to see an African-American researcher have doubts that they'd find Spike's great grandmother's obituary in the paper. His doubts were justified (but luckily didn't pan out) because in the 1930s and in many communities, African-Americans weren't often represented in death notices - even though they may have been important figures in the community.

LauraLeigh said...

A note on name changes. What I have seen in my family was they changed it from Umbach to the Menger. This happened when they arrived in the US from Germany. I have been told it was common to change names to more Americanized names once they came over to the US. And Menger was his mother's maiden name when he changed it from Umbach. This was the story in my particular incidence. And I do not believe there was ever court records to do it as there is today.

Moonshadow said...

Everyone DOES realize that names weren't as static as they are now, don't you? One of the talks given at our Am. Hist. Soc. of Germans from Russia (AHSGR) chapter meetings was given by Peggy Goertzen from Tabor College
Her topic being research in old newspapers and such. She brings the example of one gentleman that signs his OWN name many different ways on different documents over the course of a few months. It also wasn't that long ago that a good portion of the population was illiterate. I have a family line that has two different spellings of the same name depending on what branch you follow. The change in spelling nearly changes the pronunciation. Oh, and currently I have relatives in California (I'm in Kansas) that pronounces my grandmother's maiden name, Klassen, with and "a" as in apple when grandmother and everyone around here says "claw-sen". {shudder}

I felt rather badly for the lady that was a distant cousin, also. She was obviously emotional over the whole thing and I think he was rather insensitive. Another point, it wasn't just the blacks that were considered chattel. Not that long ago women in general were considered property of their husbands. Men taking pleasures with their women was just a fact of life. When looking at the past we need to remember that we are looking through today's lenses.

Kerry said...

I actually had the opposite reaction to Laura's in terms of Lee's attitude. He is a bit of an edgy guy, and I expected to see some anger from him with regard to slavery. One thing that bothered me about Emmitt Smith's episode was that he seemed to handle that whole thing very politely. That's okay if that's how he feels...but I also think it's okay for people with slave roots to feel angry, and to express that anger.

I didn't interpret his comments about the common ancestor at the end to be offensive to his cousin; he was expressing how he really felt, and he's entitled to feel that way. She didn't seem offended (in fact, that woman handled the whole thing so could see they were both uncomfortable, but they did it anyway. That dialog is hugely important to opening the door to finding the truth about ALL our ancestors.

That said, I had to keep pausing the show to rant about the whole connection to begin with. Just because Mathilda was "mulatto" doesn't mean that this particular man was her father. It's a HUGE assumption, and that man's memory has been linked to an ugly thing on national TV. That's just not cool. If they had more evidence, they should have presented it.

Thomas MacEntee said...

Moonshadow brings up an interesting point about even the own person changing the way they write or use their surname. I am a product of this - I've posted in the past about how MacEntee really was McEntee prior to 1900. However up until even the 1940s various family members would use McEntee still.