I don’t know how many of you enjoy Finding Your Roots, Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s wonderful show on PBS, now in its 5th season. Yes, one might wonder if some reactions of the famous participants are really spontaneous – but I focus on the many clearly genuine emotional responses which Gates artfully elicits, which are the heart of the show. Gates is a master of consistently seamlessly interweaving the homespun, the intellectual, and the spiritual.
What I value most is Gates’s politely insistent celebration of inclusion, individuality, and the great societal good of excavating and collectively witnessing lost (and suppressed) history. If this show were assigned high school civics class viewing, showing, person by person, how America has been great, but also as it has been terrible, we’d be a better country for it.
Apropos the state of our union, the other day I watched the episode that aired the night of the recent SOTU. The regularly scheduled new episode of Gates’s show didn’t air – and anyway, I doubt I could’ve endured watching those two slick hypocrites Marco Rubio and Paul Ryan. In any event, in its place, PBS aired a repeat of Episode 5 of Season 3, and I am very glad it did.
It was a great episode, which I first watched 2 years ago, but my 66-year old brain had forgotten most of it. The “stars” were Richard Branson, Franky Gehry, and Maya Lin, and I confess that the one I recalled least was Lin’s. A sad admission about me 2 years ago, but also positive evidence of how I’ve learned to be more alert to my own unconscious gender and racial bias, e.g., as to what I find “interesting”.
I really enjoyed the entire episode upon re-watching it, and found the genealogical stories of all three subjects compelling; but my favorite moment occurred during the Maya Lin segment, and it is the one that prompted me to write this post. Maya Lin is, as many of you know, the designer/architect/artist who, at the tender age of 21, was given the honor of creating the Vietnam War Memorial in DC. I’ve visited it a couple of times, and everyone agrees that Lin knocked it out of the park --- it is stunningly powerful, a non-statuary inspiration as to how to recognize the huge human cost of war, without romanticizing war itself.
With that prologue, here then is a link to a video of the whole episode: (please forgive the speeded up audio, which makes Gates sound like he inhaled a tiny shot of helium!) For those who don’t want to watch it all, you can scroll straight to the 2-minute segment that begins at 42:42 in running time, and ends at 44:42, which is my focus. Please at least watch that part first, and give it some thought, and see what comes up for you, before you read my take on it, below:
As I watched Gates hand Lin a copy of the document his investigative team discovered in a Chinese library --- the family “Japu”, a scroll containing her entire Lin family tree --- I recalled the brief shot earlier in the episode (at 10:54-11:00) of Lin’s Vietnam War Memorial, which consists, of course, of a very long granite wall. As Lin unfurled the full 20-foot “Japu” scroll listing hundreds of names of honored Lin ancestors, drawn from 3,000 years (or 100 generations), I found myself re-seeing Lin’s granite memorial as itself a kind of "scroll" unfurled out to its full length, containing the names of 58320+ U.S. honored dead from the Vietnam War!
It is a stunning parallel, and so very apt --- the reverence Maya Lin expressed as she held and gazed at this tangible symbol of her own ancient lineage, seems so similar to the awe which we, as Americans, feel when we walk along and touch Lin’s granite “scroll”, listing all of the fallen dead from the tragic national mistake that nearly ripped our country apart 50 years ago.
But there’s even more. The punster in me took delight in the treasure trove of variations on the word “tree” which permeates Lin’s portion of this episode. Gates explained to Lin that the family surname Lin meant “Forest”, a name derived from the original Lin family patriarch, a male child born as his mother, so the legend goes, held on to two trees. And the facsimile “Japu” Gates gave to Lin is a scroll of paper (which of course is made from trees) containing a genealogical “tree” for a family whose name, Lin, both in the shape of its written Chinese characters and also its meaning, is a group of trees! And even Lin’s granite wall resonates, because, as Gates pointed out, the granite does not stand ON the ground, it is actually set deep IN the ground --- which makes the entire wall a “forest”, with each of its many sections a “tree” rooted in the (civically) sacred soil of our nation’s capital – or, if you will, Lin’s granite wall is a tragic “limb” of our national family tree, consisting of 58,320+ “branches” cut off before their time.
Which leads to one final question. Neither Gates nor Lin mentioned any of these parallels between the wall and the family tree, nor any of the puns on “trees”. My guess is that they did recognize them, but, just as part of the mysterious power of Lin’s memorial lies in its subtlety and implications, so too do I believe that Gates and Lin elected to leave these meanings submerged and implicit, as “easter eggs” to be found and savored, by those viewers who pause and take the time to find them.
One of my favorite lines in Jane Austen’s fiction is Elizabeth Bennet’s cryptic aphorism, one which never makes it into any of the film adaptations: “We all love to instruct, but we can only teach what is not worth knowing.” I long ago recognized it as Austen’s own metafictional alert to her readers, a zen koan that asserts a seeming paradox -- that what is worth knowing, such as the lessons we take from wars, cannot be learned passively. Rather, the wise teacher comes in by the back door, and creates a space where the student can actively discover truth – as both Lin, with her memorial, and Gates, with his TV show, both understand very well.