In an exclusive interview, the TV show co-host tells GenealogyMagazine.com what sparked her obsession with family history, how she reluctantly auditioned for the show she loves, and the episode that made her cry.
By JAMES PYLANT
Copyright © 2016 | Posted 12 May 2016
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California-based attorney and genealogist Kenyatta D. Berry, who is also CEO of a social media company, has an impressive track record in business development, marketing, and sales. But she is better known for co-hosting PBS television’s Genealogy Roadshow, teaming with Joshua Taylor and Mary Tedesco as genealogical experts who present the family trees of everyday Americans.
Berry’s interest in family history sparked during law school when she became intrigued with the origins of her boyfriend’s prominent African American family in Atlanta, Georgia. She found a book edited by A. B. Caldwell entitled The History of the American Negro and His Institutions, a volume with a detailed biographical sketch in which her boyfriend’s ancestor identified his own white father and enslaved mother. “You don’t find that information every day,” says Berry. “It gave me so much information that takes people years and years to find. When I found that, I was hooked; it became my passion. Most people start with their own family, so I was unique in that respect.”
Kenyatta Berry is a Michigander with family members having settled in her native Detroit in the 1920s. “They started out as former slaves in Culpeper County, Virginia, and migrated to upstate New York,” she explains. Her great-grandmother, who was born in New York in 1895, eventually moved to Detroit with a sister and an aunt.
James Pylant: How did you become involved with Genealogy Roadshow?
Kenyatta Berry: Interestingly enough, I was president of the Association of Professional Genealogists for a couple of years, and in 2013 they—the show—were looking to hire local genealogists. They contacted APG and so I agreed to meet with two folks from the show, and I thought I was meeting them to hire local genealogists to help with the show. But I get there and the two people I’m meeting are from casting, which I didn’t know. They said, “We want to audition you for the show.” My full-time job is in technology, and I really wasn’t thinking about being on TV. “No, I’m in tech; I will never do a TV-type of thing.” It was a very funny reaction. A couple of months later they said, “PBS loves you and wants you on the show.” I love it, though. I wish I could do it every day. It becomes obsessive. The thing I love about being on the show is that I feel that we’re able to change people’s lives. We’re trying to find answers for you about your family. It’s closure for some people.
JP: PBS’s other series, Finding Your Roots, as well as TLC’s Who Do You Think You Are? are popular because of the celebrity angle—that’s the selling point. Yet Genealogy Roadshow, attracts a large audience because the stories are of everyday Americans.
KB: Yes, absolutely, and I think people appreciate that. And it becomes more relatable. The other shows are fascinating and have loads of stories, but I think that Genealogy Roadshow says you don’t have to be a celebrity. You can be everyday Americans and still find your family history.
JP: It’s often an emotional experience for your guests, and as one said, “My life is forever changed.” That has to be rewarding to you as a genealogist and as one of the show’s hosts.
KB: It is rewarding. I think it’s one of the things that you don’t fully realize the impact you’ve had. You see the person and you see the emotion, but you don’t realize that the person on the other side—the person watching at home—is reacting to and feeling that emotion because they may have a similar story. It’s not just the person sitting across the table, but it’s the viewer at home. I think for me, as a genealogist, I’m so focused on the people at the time, I don’t necessary realize the impact that story has beyond them until I go and lecture or do other things and people mention that to me.
JP: What you do—the stories that you present—also touch you personally. There’s an episode this season that brought tears to your eyes.
KB: Not to give it away what’s happening, but when you’re a genealogist, especially doing tough subjects—and we’ve done a lot of really powerful things on the show—I got to that moment. I usually remain in control, right? As lawyers, we’re taught to control emotion. At that moment, for some reason, I couldn’t stop myself. The emotion took over me. I think when people watch the episode, that’s what they will see because it’s a genuine raw emotion.
JP: Genealogy Roadshow is diverse in its storytelling. You can appeal to so many people through this series.
KB: Absolutely. They don’t typecast us in the sense that Mary’s not going to get every Italian story, Josh is not going to New England story, and I’m not going to get every African American story. Now there will be stories that I can only tell; there are certain things that as an African American I relate to that person. But they also have their reaction to that. I mean, it’s also a television show. While we’re telling a story, we need to be entertaining to viewers at home.
JP: One of your former guests is sharing her experience in a book. Mystery writer Gail Lukasik was a guest on the second season. Your show revealed a family secret—an African-American bloodline. And now she’s writing a book about this life-changing secret. That must’ve have been an exciting moment for you to present that story to her.
KB: It was! It was exciting but I was also very nervous. Gail had done this research and found a document where her mother was perceived as a person of color, and she couldn’t believe it. In telling her that that information, I felt good about it, but I was apprehensive as well because how she would react to it. She never knew her mother’s family. She didn’t know her grandfather got remarried. She found out that her mother had four half-siblings, so there was an entire branch of the family she knew nothing about. Identity is a huge thing. Genealogy can help you in that way if you want to be true to who you are, but it can also be overwhelming. They don’t know what we’re going to tell them until they sit down at the table.
The third season of Genealogy Roadshow premieres Tuesday, May 17, on PBS at 8 p.m. (ET).