03/20/2012 01:57 pm ET Updated May 20, 2012

Public Academic: Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Follows Alex Haley's Roots

Admiring the television series Roots as a boy, Yale educated and Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. explores a passion for genetics and genealogies in a new PBS series, Finding Your Roots, to start this Sunday. Featuring Mayor Cory Booker and Congressman John Lewis in the season premiere, a private screening wowed audiences at Lincoln Center's Rose Hall on Monday.

The episode intertwines the history of these two prominent Americans to reveal a poignant story of slavery, the struggle for civil rights, and a proud new generation of leaders. The backstories, developed through copious research of public records, an oral tradition of family lore, and DNA testing, are remarkable -- so amazing, in fact, you wonder, what if these findings are wrong? No matter, the discovery makes for great television.

Jody Applegate, Montego Glover, Nikki James, Celia Weston, and many others attended the special event, perhaps wondering, as I was, what would be found if my history were similarly searched. Future episodes of the 10-part series to precede Masterpiece Theater will illuminate the family histories of Samuel L. Jackson, Harry Connick, Jr., Condoleeza Rice, Robert Downey, Jr. and Barbara Walters, among others.

Mayor Cory Booker's light green eyes and light complexion suggest some white in his history and so the search to find out how his family got the Booker name is particularly revealing, not only of his own history but of a more general truth about interracial relations in the time of slavery. In the case of Congressman John Lewis who so courageously was among those struggling for voting rights in the '60s, the story of an ancestor who registered to exercise this democratic act as soon as the slaves were freed in Alabama, was most moving. Realizing his connection to Tobias Carter was overwhelming, bringing tears to his eyes, and to ours.

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