You might say that since ABC aired its most famous mini-series in 1977, that I have had a serious case of Roots envy. Like Alex Haley, I wanted to be able to find the ancestors on my family tree, deep into the depths of slavery. And to find the lost tribal or ethnic identity of our African ancestors, just as Haley claimed he had, would be more than I could imagine. Well, the Bible says be careful what you wish for. Now, with the digitization of a remarkable variety of public documents through companies such as Ancestry.com, and with affordable DNA tests, all of us can find out an extraordinary amount of information about our ancestors -- both our recent ancestors over the past few hundred years and our more distant ancestors, thousands of years ago.
After producing two PBS series devoted to African American ancestry, African American Lives and African American Lives 2, in which I traced the family trees of nineteen black people, I received a letter from a woman who described herself as eastern European and Jewish, asking me why I didn't trace the ancestry of people with her background? Why, she asked, should black people have all the fun? I had also received many letters from people of West Indian ancestry, asking if the techniques that we used on African Americans would work on their ancestry as well? So, I decided to do a new series, using what I think of as the "Noah's Ark" approach: two Catholics, two Muslims, two Jewish people, two West Indians, two Asian Americans, a Latina and a Native American, etc. And the result was Faces of America, in which we were able to uncover an extraordinary amount of information about the subjects of the film, tracing ancestors back as far as the 5th century A.D. What's more, we were able to draw upon cutting edge genetics to offer certain tests to our guests that did not even exist when I filmed my first African American Lives series just a few years ago. Most gratifying, for me, was being able to have my father's entire genome sequenced, making him the oldest human being ever to have this done.
Faces of America, now published as a book by the NYU Press, is intended to be a tribute to the true triumph of American democracy, which is the diversity of our people, a diversity that we can now measure both through the branches of our family trees and in our genes. The hunger to recreate our virtual families, certainly not a new phenomenon judging by the popularity of such reference works as Burke's Peerage and Gentry and DeBretts, would seem to be insatiable. Stuart Hall has said, famously, that cultural identities have histories; so do families, so do individuals, of course. But it is the curious relation among the histories of these three entities -- how they converge, and how they do not converge -- that makes the assembly of our virtual families so endlessly fascinating.
The Temple of Delphi posted as its motto "Know Thyself." We might amend that today to say "Know Thy History, Know Thyself." I have published the family histories of each of my twelve guests for the PBS series as chapters in the new book, in order to share the rich detail that could only be touched upon in the television documentary. The Huffington Post is excerpting a series of these fascinating stories. The following examines Kristi Yamaguchi.
Excerpted from Faces of America
Kristi's paternal grandfather was a man named Tatsuichi Yamaguchi, born April 24, 1879, in Ureshino, Japan. He died in California in 1958 when Kristi's father Jim was just eighteen. Kristi never met him, and her father knew surprisingly little about his origins when we talked to him. But we were able to reconstruct his story -- and it is as inspiring as any story I encountered during the course of this project.
We found a passenger list from the Japanese Diplomatic Records Office showing that Tatsuichi Yamaguchi, a twenty-one-year-old farmer, left his hometown in Japan for Hawaii on November 16, 1899, under a labor permit. Tatsuichi had signed a three-year contract with the Onomea Sugar Company on the big island of Hawaii, near Hilo. At that time, Hawaii was about to become a territory of the United States, and it was dominated by vast sugar plantations owned by American companies. These plantations required huge numbers of workers and the indigenous population of Hawaii had been decimated by the diseases introduced by foreigners. Labor had to come from abroad. Japanese workers were welcome and desired.
This was a new phenomenon in Japan. "Hawaii Fever," as it was called, exerted a powerful attraction, especially for younger sons of large families, because they could never expect to inherit their family's farm. In 1899, 130 people from the Saga prefecture applied to emigrate to Hawaii, and 57 were granted permission to go. They set sail in November of that year. Kristi's grandfather was among these pioneers. Tatsuichi was the fourth son in his family. He had no hope of inheriting any land in Japan. It was a calculated risk.
In the 1900 Hawaiian Island census, Tatsuichi is listed as living near Hilo with two other laborers in a ramshackle lodging. He was earning fifteen dollars a month for working twelve-hour days, six days a week, in the blazing sun, cutting and processing sugar cane. Conditions were extremely harsh. The plantations employed thousands of contract laborers, who were stratified and regulated by ethnicity and treated much like slaves. A "luna," or boss, usually a white man, rode through the cane fields on horseback, wielding a whip to keep order.
We found the lyrics to work songs that the Japanese laborers used to sing. One of them pretty much says it all: "Wonderful Hawaii, or so I heard. One look and it seems like Hell. The manager's the Devil, and his luna are demons."
Not surprisingly, many Japanese workers returned home when their contracts ended. But the more adventurous, like Kristi's grandfather, set out for California, where other opportunities beckoned. In the 1910 U.S. census for Sacramento, Tatsuichi is listed as living in a rooming house on a street known as "Japanese Alley," working as a farm laborer.
Conditions were better in California than they had been in Hawaii, but they were by no means ideal. Men like Tatsuichi who came from farming families in southern Japan had experience and skills that were well suited to the labor-intensive farming of Sacramento and Santa Clara counties. They quickly discovered a paradox, however. While their labor was welcome, they themselves were not. Asians as a whole were deemed to be aliens ineligible for citizenship. They were confined to the class of perpetual foreigners and were themselves the target of all forms of racism. Japanese immigrants were new to this scene in the twentieth century, but as they became more numerous, anti-Japanese sentiment spread, and the Unites States and Japan negotiated the so-called Gentlemen's Agreement of 1907, which effectively ended the immigration of Japanese men to the United States. The agreement did allow for the unification of families, however. So from 1908 on, many women came from Japan as the wives of workers who were already here.
In 1917, Kristi's grandfather was doing well enough and felt that his opportunities were sufficiently good that he could travel home and bring back a wife, Tsusa Shimomura. Records show that the following year, the couple was living in Cupertino, California, and had had their first child, a daughter. A second daughter was born in 1920. Because they were born in the United States, these girls were American citizens. The family, it seemed, was following a classic immigrant trajectory. Then, in 1922, tragedy struck. In June, both daughters died within a few days of each other. In October, Tsusa gave birth to another child, a son, who died within days. Tsusa herself passed away in November. They all died from illness--although the records do not indicate what kind of illness. Tatsuichi was now alone, having lost his entire family in just a few months.
But Tatsuichi moved on. Despite the tragedies, he didn't give up. As a Japanese immigrant, he had very few rights. Although he had been living and working in the United States now for a quarter of a century, he was still classified as an alien ineligible for citizenship. He could have returned to Japan, but he did not. He chose to remain in America and rebuild his life. In 1927, Tatsuichi married again, this time to a beautiful widow with three young children: Kristi's grandmother and namesake, Tsuya Ito Tanabe. She had come to California from Kumamoto prefecture with her first husband.
Tatsuichi and Tsuya went on to have six more children together, including Kristi's father, Jim. By 1941, the family was farming on 175 acres, earning enough to support themselves. The war changed everything, of course. Tatsuichi and Tsuya were sent to an internment camp in Poston, California. All that they brought with them was what they could carry on their backs. They lost the farm and all their other possessions. And on August 7, 1945, the day after America dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, the authorities at Poston interviewed Tatsuichi about his plans for relocation after the war. We found the notes taken by his interviewer, and they are chilling. They read, in part, "Mr. Y is 67 years old and questions his own employability. There are eight children, all at home, of whom three are employable. He states they have absolutely no resources and will need resettlement assistance."
Soon after the interview, Tatsuichi was given employment and assigned to what was called "family housing" at the Santa Maria Berry Farms. According to his son, the housing amounted to tents set up in a parking lot. Worse yet, after decades of running his own farm, Tatsuichi had to return to back-breaking manual labor--picking strawberries for a large, white-owned farm.
Kristi remembers that when she was growing up her father would sometimes talk about farming as a young boy with his father and siblings in Santa Maria. "I remember stories of how before and after school they'd be in the fields picking strawberries. My father never really complained too much about it. But I know that he decided, 'Hey, this isn't what I'm going to do for the rest of my life.' I think it inspired him to go to dental school."
Tatsuichi did not have the option to do anything else with his life -- all he knew was farming. But he refused to be broken by his experience. He worked as hard after the war as he had before it and he endured, paving the way for his children's and his grandchildren's success. Remarkably, on December 17, 1954, at the age of seventy-five, he became a citizen of the United States. By that date, Tatsuichi Yamaguchi had been in America for fifty-five years. For fifty-three of those years, he had been classified as an alien ineligible for citizenship. But in December 1952, the U.S. Congress passed the McCarran-Walter Act, which allowed Japanese immigrants finally to become naturalized citizens. And despite everything Tatsuichi had lived through, as soon as the law was passed, he immediately applied for citizenship. He died four years later on May 10, 1958, a seventy-nine-year-old American. "He really laid the foundation for our family," said Kristi. "He went through it all. Either he was running from something in Japan, or he just saw a future here for his family. Doesn't matter -- he did it."
Tatsuichi's wife, Tsuya Yamaguchi, never applied for citizenship. She outlived her husband by seven years, dying peacefully in 1965, but she never saw the need to become an American citizen. "I didn't know that," said Kristi. "But I think it's great that he wanted it and got it. I'm sure he felt he earned it, that he had put his time in and paid his debt, so he deserves to have that stamp of approval. I think I wouldn't be here probably if he hadn't done that."
Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor at Harvard. He has written twelve books and produced and narrated ten documentaries. His new series, Black in Latin America, airs on PBS in April.
Eleven more American family histories are available in Faces of America.
Every Friday, HuffPost's Culture Shift newsletter helps you figure out which books you should read, art you should check out, movies you should watch and music should listen to. Learn more