Monday, October 13, 2014

Finding Your Roots Review: Our American Storytellers (S2E3)

The third episode of this second season of  Finding Your Roots focused on the impact the Civil War had on the ancestors of journalist Anderson Cooper, documentarian Ken Burns, and playwright Anna Deavere Smith. If you missed it you can watch it online at .

Anderson Cooper is the son of Gloria Vanderbilt of the New York Vanderbilts. Alluding to the profound and noteworthy role the Vanderbilts played in the history of New York, Anderson stated that when he was a child he thought that when grandparents died they became statues. Very cute, Anderson, very cute. The program did discuss his wealthy high-society Vanderbilts a bit but mostly it focused on his father's side and his deep Southern roots.

Cooper's father, Wyatt Emory Cooper, died of a heart attack when Anderson was just 11 years old and so Anderson knew little of his Southern family history although he did express that he connected more with that side of his family tree than with that of the Vanderbilts.

Several of his Cooper ancestors fought for the Confederate Army and like the average Confederates were merely small farm owners who did not own slaves. However, we learned that his third great-grandfather did own a plantation, though, and in a shocking discovery learned that he was murdered by one of his own slaves.

Ken Burns, who produced the acclaimed documentary The Civil War in 1990, learned that he had relatives on the Conferedate side as well. Disappointed to learn of ancestors on that side of the battle, Ken stated, "I'm not sure defend is the right word, you just have to accept your family." That is the message I hope I send through my blog.

Burns also expressed disappointment in learning that he had ancestors who owned slaves. He stated it's not a guilt that he felt but a sadness which is exactly how I felt when I learned of my slave owning ancestors. His family, of course, was in the South, mine were not.

But not all of Burns's discovers were disappointing. He also learned that he is related to his hero, Abraham Lincoln; a 5th cousin four times removed. Also, his DNA supported the family legend that he is indeed related to the Scottish poet Robert Burns; not directly descended from him but nonetheless related. 

I think the most interesting story of the three celebrities was that of Anna Deavere Smith's great-great grandfather, Basil Biggs. His family farmland in Gettysburg was used as a Confederate filed hospital during the Civil War. After the War, Basil was put in charge of re-interring the hastily buried Union soldiers into the neat orderly graves that would come to be known as the Gettysburg National Cemetery. Finally we learn through Basil's obituary that he was an active conductor in the Underground Railroad, helping Southern slaves escape to the North.

Tomorrow's episode will feature actor Ben Affleck, dancer/actor Khandi Alexander, and civic leader Ben Jealous.

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