Angela Davis’ Ancestry Results on PBS’ “Finding Your Roots” Sparks Debate

Viewers felt that Dr. Henry Louis Gates' delivery of the news was insensitive to Davis, especially during Black History Month.
By Madison E. Goldberg
(Photo by Brian Stukes/Getty Images)

Angela Davis, a long time political activist, academic scholar, and author, known for her work with the Black Panthers in the 1970s, recently appeared on the popular PBS program Finding Your Roots. The show, hosted by Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr., began in 2012, and features celebrities, prominent journalists and politicians getting answers about their ancestry.

In Davis’ episode, which premiered on PBS yesterday, the most shocking revelation was that one of her ancestors was on board the Mayflower. The ship carried 102 passengers from England to then Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1620. The history of the Massachusetts Bay Colony has long been debated among educators and historians. American history tends to romanticize Plymouth Rock and the pilgrims interactions with the indigenous Wampanoag and Mashpee people, but in reality, it is likely that Thanksgiving was more so a violent colonization effort.

Many on board the Mayflower went on to take Black and indigenous slaves, and in contemporary accounts of history, raped and abused the women. It is likely that this would explain Davis’ lineage to Mayflower passenger William Brewster, who was born in England circa 1570. Many felt that Dr. Gates’ delivery of the news to Davis was insensitive given the historical context likely associated with the connection. Davis’ history of activism for the Black community is an active juxtaposition to the mission of this ancestor, and a lot of viewers felt that Dr. Gates pushed the shock value too far.

Dr. Gates has a thorough education in history, having received his Bachelor’s Degree in the subject from Yale University, and his Phd. in literature at Clare College, Cambridge in England. Given the years dedicated to his education, Dr. Gates likely does understand the complexity of the history of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and slavery. However, his positive phrasing in reference to the pilgrim Davis is related to sparked conversations on the importance of delivery in programs as popular as Finding Your Roots, as it could unintentionally reinforce inaccurate historical stereotypes.

Many were quick to reinforce that the history of the Americas did not begin when the English colonized much of North America. Indigenous peoples populated the present day United States for potentially thousands of years prior to their arrival.

Some felt that while Dr. Gates’ delivery of the news was surprising, white viewers did not understand the shocking disappointment that Davis felt, and how many Black Americans can relate to her ancestry story.

Others felt that regardless of his delivery, Dr. Gates’ program is telling important stories of the complexities of race in America.

Other viewers felt that there was not enough research done into Davis’ Black ancestors.

Finding Your Roots is currently on its ninth season, and has featured episodes tracing the lineage of Julia Roberts, Viola Davis, Clare Danes, Niecy Nash, Joe Manganiello, David Duchovny and more. Each season has challenged the notions of what many of the people featured expected to find out about their race and ethnicity, and while controversial in its sentiment, Angela Davis did just that.