December 13, 2017

Questlove learns fascinating truth about family ancestry on 'Finding Your Roots'

History African Americans
Questlove Matt Rourke/AP

The Roots' Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson performs during an Independence Day celebration Saturday, July 4, 2015, in Philadelphia.

Amir "Questlove" Thompson became a lionheart of hip-hop on the strength of The Roots' politically charged discography, a 25-year journey that has elevated black discourse with musical sophistication and bouncy, unaffected grit.

In the tense political climate of 2017, some are openly questioning whether the mainstream ascendance of The Roots has been compromised by the apparent apoliticism of Jimmy Fallon, who vaulted the band into late night television in 2009.

If Questlove's admonishment of Keith Olbermann and Black Thought's freestyling at Harvard are any indication, they don't silence themselves for the sake of Fallon's jovial neutrality.

Thompson appeared Tuesday night on an episode of the PBS series "Finding Your Roots," a name so apt it makes you wonder why it took the producers five years to bring him on the show. It was worth the wait.

In the videos below, Questlove learns from host Henry Louis Gates Jr. that he is descended from the last known group of enslaved people who came to the United States from Ghana, West Africa. Questlove's ancestors came to this country in 1860 aboard the schooner Clatilda, which brought 100 slaves to an area north of Mobile, Alabama.

"I'm not over-acting," Thompson told Gates Jr. "I'm at a loss for words."

Thompson's ancestors, freed amid legal disputes about their ownership during the Civil War, were part of the group that formed Africatown, a historic district in modern-day Mobile also known as Plateau.

The story of Thompson's lineage is remarkable not just for its historical details, but because genealogical studies among African-Americans are known to be made incredibly difficult by a scarcity of complete records.

"I'm just so overwhelmed right now," Thompson said. "Because I never — I mean, until an hour ago, I didn't know who I was."