FOR MORE THAN 20 YEARS, artist Kara Walker has explored the vestiges of slavery and the antebellum South in her critically recognized work. Known for her narrative silhouettes, her practice probes America’s uncomfortable, often violent, history through the lens of race, gender and sexuality. Given this, it is fascinating to watch Walker learn about her own family heritage and racial past.

A few days ago, Walker was featured on the season premiere of PBS’s “Finding Your Roots” with Henry Louis Gates Jr. (Watch a preview above, full episode below.) She is the first visual artist to appear on the program. Currently based in New York, Walker was born in Stockton, Calif., and from adolescence grew up in Atlanta. Gates traces Walker’s roots back to South Carolina on her mother’s side of the family, and Georgia on her father’s.

“There’s a rumor, my mom intimated that somebody may have been white or may have been passing. But there was never a fact to stand on, just a lot of suppositions,” Walker tells Gates at the beginning of their conversation.

“There’s a rumor, my mom intimated that somebody may have been white or may have been passing.” — Kara Walker, Finding Your Roots

Gates’s investigation determines that her great great maternal grandfather in Akin, S.C., was a white man who owned a butcher shop. Another ancestor, her great great great maternal grandfather was identified as an “f.p.c.” (free person of color), who worked as a blacksmith before the end of the Civil War. There are intriguing twists to each of their stories.

On her father’s side of the family, the research identifies Walker’s closest slave ancestor and source of her surname. Her great great paternal grandfather, David Walker (born c. 1833), is listed in the 1880 Census in Coweta County, Ga., and is also believed to be included on an earlier roster of “property” belonging to a local slave owner.

“I don’t know how I feel about it,” Walker says.

The details and records that Gates finds about Walker’s ancestry are revealing and it is interesting to observe her measured responses to the information.

Walker appeared on the Jan. 5 episode of “Finding Your Roots” which also delved into the family trees of actor Ty Burrell and Democratic Strategist Donna Brazille. CT


WATCH FULL EPISODE Kara Walker segments begin at 18:12 and 34:27 (expires Feb. 4, 2016 and thereafter requires a subscription)

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