Finding out who you are and what your ancestry looks like can be a complicated journey for African Americans in the United States, especially for actor LeVar Burton.
The actor rose to fame in his most notable work as a child actor in the television adaption of Alex Haley’s “Roots,” Henry Louis Gates Jr. said was an inspiration for “Finding Your Roots,” his PBS show that aids celebrities and public figures in figuring out their family lineage and history.
In previous episodes of the show, actor Joe Manganiello was told that he had a Black family member, activist Angela Davis learned she was descended from someone on the Mayflower, and even Sen. Bernie Sanders and Larry Davis found out they were distantly related.
For Burton, the show unearthed the secret that his great-great-grandmother on his mother’s side, Mary Sills, was actually the biological daughter of a white farmer named James Henry Dixon. At the time of Sills’ birth, Dixon had a wife and family. The Messenger reported that Dixon had nine children and over 40 grandchildren.
Dumbfounded, Burton said, “And she was the other family on the other side.”
“Were you expecting that? Did you have any idea you had a white ancestor?” Gates asked.
The “Star Trek: Next Generation” actor shook his head and laughed. He said, “So Granny was half-white. Wow.”
But Gates had more to reveal about Dixon. He told Burton that Dixon served in the Confederate army as a teenager.
“Are you kidding me? Oh, my God. Oh, my God. I did not see this coming,” Burton said.
However, Gates told Burton that Dixon was a part of the junior reserves which was used for guard duty and it was very unlikely that he saw battle. But he still served in an army whose primary objective was to uphold slavery in the South and confusingly enough, he had a child with a Black woman born into slavery.
But the context of how Sills was conceived is unknown, and Burton questioned it while processing the unveiled family secret, the Los Angeles Times reported.
“I often wonder about white men of the period and how they justify to themselves their relations with Black women, especially those in an unbalanced power dynamic,” he said. “There has to be a powerful disconnect created emotionally and mentally.
“So it’s possible in my mind that he could’ve contemplated it and was conflicted at worst, maybe repentant at best. And then there’s the possibility that he didn’t think about it at all,” he continued.
Still shocked at the news Burton said “Now, I’d have fought you five minutes ago if you’d told me that I had a white great-great-grandfather.”
“You can fight me, but it’s the truth, and ain’t nothing you can do about it,” Gates joked.
Then Burton referenced Kunta Kinte, the iconic character he played on “Roots.” “What? Kunta got white ancestry? What? Come on now, Skip,” he said to Gates.
After all was revealed about his family lineage, Burton said he felt conflict “roiling inside of me right now, but also oddly enough I feel a pathway opening up. . .”
“In this now moment, I believe that as Americans, we need to have this conversation about who we are and how we got here. But yet I see that we are so polarized politically and racially,” he said.
Burton’s extensive network of distantly related white relatives gives him “an entry point to talk to white America,” Burton said.
“Finding Your Roots” airs Tuesdays at 8 p.m. ET on PBS.
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