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Black history, through family trees

Americans get mixed messages, these days, about the past. On one hand, we're taught that history doesn't matter; the promise of this country is an open and limitless future. But then, identity politics suggest that past is present: We can't know ourselves without understanding where we're from.

''African American Lives," the four-hour PBS series that premieres at 9 tonight on Channel 2, falls on the latter side. True, it profiles the likes of Oprah Winfrey, whose unspeakably tragic childhood hardly foretells her current position. But it suggests that family history is destiny, too -- that Oprah is Oprah in part because her ancestors were determined and strong.

The series begins as host and executive producer Henry Louis Gates Jr. visits Ellis Island, where Caucasian Americans come to trace their European roots. Black people, Gates asserts, deserve the same information; it's just that, up to now, they lacked the means to find it. They also may have lacked any reason to ask. ''If you're on the run, man," says record producer and composer Quincy Jones, ''you do not care about lineage."

''African American Lives" takes on the riveting task of tracing black history through family history, focusing on people we largely know. Along with Gates, Winfrey, and Jones, the series traces the family trees of actress Whoopi Goldberg, neurosurgeon Ben Carson, preacher Bishop T.D. Jakes, astronaut Mae Jemison, Harvard professor Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, and comedian Chris Tucker. Each episode takes us back further in time, first to the Jim Crow era and the Great Migration, then to the days of slavery and Reconstruction, and, finally, to Africa.

If nothing else, this is a stunning historical undertaking, a massive and detailed project tracing genealogical records and analyzing DNA, swiped from celebrity cheeks. But the program's greater power comes from the past itself. With minimal use of talking-head experts, it tells the small stories that make history feel more true.

We meet, for instance, a white genealogist who could be Gates's distant cousin. We learn that Tucker's great-grandfather saved a black Georgia town from extinction by selling land to families who would have migrated north. We learn that Winfrey's great-great grandfather put a school on his property. We spend time with Winfrey's father, who still runs a no-frills barbershop in Nashville, and is as compelling a figure as anyone.

Winfrey commands more than her share of screen time, in part because she's eloquent. Tucker provides a vehicle for a trip back to Africa, where he comes face to face with his roots. Goldberg wittily cuts through documentary conventions: When Gates asks her how it will feel to uncover her roots, she replies, ''I don't know. I don't want to fabricate a feeling. I want to feel it."

Gates, the head of Harvard's Department of African and African American studies, takes the comment well; as host and tour guide, he's a warm and energetic presence. (He's also a bit of a social chameleon; he wears a dapper pinstriped suit when he talks to Winfrey, a pink-striped polo shirt with Tucker.) Still, there's something too precious about the way he refers to the eight featured celebrities as ''my guests." And his cheeriness can come across as odd. ''If I find any information about even one slave in my family," he says at one point, ''I'll be one happy man."

Indeed, that's where ''African American Lives" becomes a bit unsatisfying. At many points, the documentary turns into an Oprah-style confessional, an emotional detective story in which all knowledge is unabashedly good. So we marvel at the presence of white blood in Quincy Jones's family tree, but we don't discuss the violence that may have accompanied an interracial union during slavery. We're reminded of the horrors of the Middle Passage and slavery -- and Gates makes passing, almost joking, reference to the reparations debate -- but the show doesn't examine the challenges facing African-Americans who aren't rich and famous today.

Still, it's clear that more knowledge is better than less; as their family histories are revealed, the celebrities are genuinely grateful. And, most tellingly about modern American life, we see that an African past is a source of unmitigated pride. When Gates learns that, DNA-wise, he's less African than he thought, his disappointment is palpable.

''I have the blues," he says. ''Can I still have the blues?"

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com.

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