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A Legend Dives into Malcolm Gladwell’s Roots

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. | The Root   in  ·
February 26, 2015

Faces of America: How 12 Extraordinary People Discovered Their Pasts, based on the PBS series Faces of America, is the latest book from Henry Louis Gates Jr., the series’ host and The Root’s editor-in-chief. In it, Gates applies a global perspective to examine the roots and identities of 12 celebrated Americans of diverse backgrounds, from actress Eva Longoria to author-surgeon Dr. Mehmet Oz. Here he describes the hunt for the truth about New Yorker writer and best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell’s Jamaican and Irish heritage.

We began researching Malcolm Gladwell’s Jamaican ancestors by focusing on his maternal grandmother, Daisy Ford Nation, who was born in St. Elizabeth Parish in 1899. In his book Outliers, Malcolm writes about how his family’s path to success had been blazed by Daisy, claiming that her determination and ambition for her children was the legacy of her own ancestors, the Fords.

“According to oral history in my family,” Malcolm said, “when we go back to the late eighteenth century, there is an Irishman named William Ford. I don’t know who he was, but the family says at one point he owned a coffee plantation or something like that. And he takes an African slave as a concubine. They have a son who is a preacher, a brown-skinned preacher who marries an Arawak Indian. That’s the claim. And that starts in motion this line of brown-skinned Fords, my mom’s people. Many of them have some kind of profession: they’re merchants or preachers, or they’re doing something more than simply being slaves or descendants of slaves. And because of the special privileges accorded to brown-skinned children of white people in Jamaica, the Fords have a leg up. So that’s the story. And it begins with this decision by William Ford to take as his consort this slave.”

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