Monday, February 15, 2010

The Making of Americans

“Remember, remember always that all of us, you and I especially, are descended from immigrants and revolutionists.”
~ Franklin Delano Roosevelt

President’s Day is as good a time as any to think about immigration, since without immigrants and — as Roosevelt noted, “revolutionists” — there would be no United States and George Washington and Abraham Lincoln would be meaningless names.

In the past few years we’ve all heard a lot of angry, inflated rhetoric about immigration. There are those who want to close our borders or build a wall between our country and Mexico. It seems that far too many of us have forgotten who we are and where we came from.

Fortunately, the new PBS series, Faces of America, serves as a wonderful reminder. Hosted with great sensitivity, intelligence and charm by Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the show traces the genealogical journeys of a diverse group of accomplished Americans and reveals to them never-before-seen photos of and documents about their ancestors.

In the first episode, under Professor Gates's gentle questioning, director Mike Nichols talks about escaping from Germany as a young child. We also see famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma describe the serendipitous meeting that led to his family’s migration from France to the U.S. The episode also delivers a tantalizing peek into the histories of poet Elizabeth Alexander, chef Mario Batali, physician Mehmet Oz, actress Eva Longoria, novelist Louise Erdrich, journalist Malcolm Gladwell and Olympic gold medalist Kristi Yamaguchi. While watching it, I found it impossible to avoid wondering about my own ancestors and what brought them here. That's part of the show's magic: it forces us to focus on our own immigrant roots.

The first episode of Faces of America is available for viewing on the PBS Web site right now, and I strongly encourage everyone to go and watch it. And don’t forget to tune in to the rest of the series, as Professor Gates digs deeper into the heritages and DNA of his subjects and also expands the group to include Queen Noor, actress Meryl Streep and comedian Steven Colbert.

“The making of an American begins at the point where he himself rejects all other ties, any other history, and himself adopts the vesture of his adopted land.”
~ James Baldwin

“A civilization is a heritage of beliefs, customs, and knowledge slowly accumulated in the course of centuries, elements difficult at times to justify by logic, but justifying themselves as paths when they lead somewhere, since they open up for a man his inner distance.”
~ Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Note: All photos are from the Ellis Island archives.


  1. Thank you for reminding us that immigration isn't what's wrong with America, it defines America.

  2. Yes, that's exactly how I feel about it as well. Thank you for putting it so eloquently.