The United States census of 1870 contains an entry for a 33-year-old slave named Constant Tine. In fact, the slave’s name was Constantine. Like other slaves, he used the surname of his master Absalom when he started making his way in the world. Six years after the census had carved him in two, Constantine made a deal with a white man that would change his life forever. He promised to pick eight bales of cotton in two years, if John Watson, the white man, would compensate him for this Stakhanovite labour with eighty acres of prime real estate. Somehow, even though Constantine was fully employed at the time, a deal was struck, and both parties delivered as promised. As if this were not remarkable enough, Constantine’s signature on the land deed proves that he had taught himself to read and write in the previous decade.
Twenty years later, when the black school in Poplar Creek, Mississippi was closed down by the white community, Constantine relocated the school to his property. Like the great Toussaint L’Ouverture, Constantine seems to have never let hopeless odds distract him from his ambitions for long. His belief in owning land and getting an education must have seemed Quixotic at the time, but history will record that not only did Constantine Winfrey manage to overcome most of the obstacles that were set in his way during those difficult years, but he also turned out to be the great-great-grandfather of the best known black woman of the twentieth century. The only living black billionaire, the host of the most watched talk show in the history of television and, perhaps most astonishing of all, the only person who can make millions of Americans buy a serious book simply by endorsing it. Oprah Winfrey may be the best known example of the American dream, but the story of her grandfather-unearthed by Professor Henry Louis Gates for a PBS documentary-shows that even dreamers can have the right kind of ancestral spirits watching over them.
The PBS documentary and book which has emerged from Gates’s research, is the twenty-first century version of Roots, Alex Haley’s amazing reconstruction of the lives of his enslaved ancestors. Haley managed to trace his family right back to a particular village in modern Africa but Oprah’s Roots, the documentary, goes one better by using DNA matching to determine exactly where her genes originated, and the story gets better by the strand. Although Oprah turns out not to be a Zulu as she had previously declared, her genetic sequence shows that her ancestors came from tribes who lived in what we now call Zambia and Cameroon-the apparent confusion of genes a result of the transportation of women who had been captured in war. The genetic code has allowed researchers to follow her ancestors at a level of detail that would have been pure science fiction a generation ago. In an interview on the Charlie Rose show, Gates explained, “[Oprah’s ancestor] was captured among the Kpelle people of Liberia, shipped to the sea islands off the coast of Carolina and Georgia, and then shipped into Georgia. We even know the name of the man who took her ancestor to Mississippi. His name was James Davidson.” Oprah Winfrey was born to unwed teenagers in 1954. She was raised by her grandmother, then moved to a ghetto at the age of six. Molested as a child, pregnant at 14 (the baby died), her life must often have seemed as hopeless as Constantine’s. Yet, somehow, both escaped from what would have been a predictable fate. Their perseverance and extraordinary success should inspire anyone who thinks life has treated them harshly, and their example should make those of us who have had relatively easy lives work a little harder. Our ancestors would expect nothing less.