Oprah ain’t no Zulu!
But first, a short digression. When Arthur Haley’s Roots aired in 1976, it became one of the most highly watched programs of all time. Nearly half of all TVs in America were tuned in to the final installment. It single-handedly invented the mini-series genre and caused an explosion in genealogy. However, in the ensuing years, scholars have questioned Haley’s conclusion that he is descended from Kunta Kinte, native of a specific African village; there are few hard facts about early slaves and Haley’s story was based entirely on oral tradition. So there has been no way to validate or refute his lineage.
Jump to 2001. Oprah Winfrey heads off to explore her own roots in South Africa. She touts her heritage as a Zulu, the fiercest, most independent tribe on the continent. Nelson Mandela asks her to help improve life in Africa and she agrees. Oprah decides to build a school for girls in Johannesburg.
Here comes the twist. Dr. Henry Louis Gates, chair of African American studies at Harvard, sets out on an exploration of his own, through African American history. He digs through the historical sources and soon comes to a genealogical dead end. So he turns to leading scientists to see if they can take him further back through the use of DNA analysis. In a nice piece of marketing, he sells PBS on the idea of mapping numerous black celebrities, including Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey. Cameras roll. Blood is taken.
Oh, the timing. After six years of preparation and $40 million spent, Oprah’s school opens on January 1 in South Africa. And just 23 days later, PBS reveals that Oprah is not Zulu at all, but rather a descendant of the Kpelle tribe from what is now Liberia in West Africa. Missed it by 3,422 miles!
So before YOU head off to the place your grandma swears is your native land, make sure you get your genome checked.