Anna Deavere Smith Finding Your Roots II 12/7/13

Anna Deavere Smith
Finding Your Roots II

*Monday’s episode of “Finding Your Roots 2” had plenty of dramatic revelations for its three subjects…as well as the viewing audience.

Who knew that CNN anchor Anderson Cooper’s great-great-great-great-grandfather was beaten to death by his slave?

With a farm hoe…

Or that documentarian Ken Burns had an American relative who fought for the British in the Revolutionary War? Burns was appalled and embarrassed…

Perhaps the most moving revelation of the night was when Dr. Henry Louis Gates presented playwright and actress Anna Deavere Smith with the story of her 3rd great grandfather, Basil Biggs, a free black man who served as a conductor on the Underground Railroad…

…and a businessman who hired a small crew and contracted with the government to dig up and rebury fallen soldiers at Gettysburg.

“Gettysburg, we actually spent so many years as kids going there to see my Aunt Hannah, and running around the battlefield with my bad, naughty cousin Boobie who would set off firecrackers on the canons,” Smith recalled during a TCA session for the show in July. “But how did I know that while we were running around having fun in there that actually Basil, which is a big name in our family, that somebody had been, of all things, digging graves.”

Gates showed Smith a photograph of the dead soldiers at Gettysburg before revealing Basil’s role in their burial, and Smith told him that it had a visceral impact: “The way you illustrated it, what it meant to have all those dead bodies, all the pestilence, the smells, what that was to have done that. And that the man who did it also had an entrepreneurial spirit is a very important thing.”


To say that Anna Deavere Smith was moved by her “Finding Your Roots” experience is an understatement. Her most important takeaway?

She told Gates: “The other thing that was important to me, Skip, about what you offered me as an African American artist was — because so much of what you showed me was from deeds and birth certificates — was this idea that we’ve heard spoken much more eloquently than I can say, that I am an American. That I am an American. That I’m not an other.”

Anna Deavere Smith's 3rd Great Grandfather Basil Biggs

Anna Deavere Smith’s 3rd Great Grandfather Basil Biggs

Below, Smith reveals whether or not she’ll turn her 3rd great grandfather Basil Biggs into a character for her to inhabit some day on stage:

Click here to watch the full episode from Monday, Oct. 6 featuring Anna Deavere Smith, Anderson Cooper and Ken Burns.