In tonight’s episode of the PBS show Finding Your Roots, Maya Rudolph breaks down crying when she learns that her family history traces back to a five-year-old slave who lived on a Kentucky plantation.
Before learning details about her roots, Rudolph says in the episode that, as a person of mixed race, she’s always been curious about her family’s deep history. “I have this thing where I just feel I can be anyone,” she says. “I know I’m from ‘peoples,’ but I don’t know who they are. I want to know people’s names, I want to know what they did, I want to know where they lived. I want to go as far back as possible.”
Combing through the U.S. 1860 Slave Census, the show’s researchers traced Rudolph’s roots by way of a white man named John Warren Grigsby, who owned 32 slaves. Among them were Rudolph’s maternal ancestors and their five-year-old son, whose name was never listed—only his age and gender. As the show’s host Henry Louis Gates Jr. explains her lineage (describing their search as “a long shot”), Rudolph gets choked up.
Watch in the clip below.
As the daughter of a black woman (the legendary Minnie Riperton) and a white man (producer/composer Richard Rudolph), Maya Rudolph can’t be that surprised to learn she’s the descendant of slaves. But holding a piece of paper that serves as a record of slave ownership is enough to get you sobbing. Seeing it on paper is what seems to trigger her breakdown.
“I cannot believe I’m looking at this,” she says. “That breaks my heart. Wow...I just think of my kids, so it’s really hard to see...That poor little boy.” She adds, “Just when I understood what the numbers were that I’m looking at [the ages of the slaves] is what broke my heart. You just don’t think of details because you don’t have them. And then I see 5 and I think of my daughter.”
At another point in the show, Rudolph, who’s 43, finds out about a freed slave in her ancestry who went to court in the 1830s to fight for the freedom promised to him in his owner’s will, and ended up winning. “How is that even possible?” Rudolph tells Gates. “I can’t imagine what the odds could have been, and then they went in his favor. To me, that’s tremendous courage.”
“Yeah, they’re my people,” she says.
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Image via PBS screengrab