Who Do You Think You Are? Returns to NBC With the One and Only Billy Porter for the Premiere Episode
Identity is a tricky thing. We inherit so many quirks and traits from our ancestors, passed down in our very DNA. But that’s not the only thing that makes us who we are. We also inherit our ancestor’s history, and it can be even more profound when we realize long unknown truths. That’s the appeal of shows like Who Do You Think You Are? It’s finally making its triumphant return to NBC, and partnering with Ancestry to find answers for very well-known celebrity guests. It all starts today with the one and only Billy Porter.
It was easy at first to discount Billy Porter as a sideshow. As someone that just dressed in flamboyant outfits to get attention. But over the years I’ve come to see different facets of Billy’s personality. He’s an activist and an artist, though most know him for his performances in both Kinky Boots and in Pose. No matter what you may think about him, Billy is a person, just like anybody else (though perhaps a tad more fabulous). And as this premiere episode of Who Do You Think You Are? clearly illustrates, he’s a man both bound by history but also unshackled by it.
Billy Porter grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the hood. It turns out he was artsy since he was little, and started singing in Church at 5 and joined the talent show in 5th grade. There, he showed everybody what he had to offer, and was recognized widely as being something special. As a result, he stopped getting bullied afterwards, and realized his art was both his shield and sword.
While his family was always cagy about their history and relationships, his half-sister Mary Martha knew the most about everyone. As such, she’s one of the people Billy talks with on his journey of self-discovery in this episode of Who Do You Think You Are?, but far from the last.
Billy admits he got his strength from his mother, a woman named Cloerinda Jean Johnson Porter-Ford. She married William Ellis Porter, and had a truly whirlwind romance. They were quickly divorced after Billy was born, and as such he grew up raised by the strong women in his life, while his father only reappeared when it was convenient.
The one story Billy knew about his family was how one great-grandpa was supposedly shot in the back when he was only 34. He starts using resources like Newspaper.com and the Daily Post to read up on the historical record, and finds differing accounts. Some stories say his grandpa was shot in the chest, others in the lung, and one even said he was armed when a police officer murdered him. That last part was the only consensus, a painful reminder how much further we still need to progress in this country.
To help parse the truth, Billy finds a historian named Nicka Sewell-Smith. She unearths an account from that time in a black newspaper called the Pittsburgh Courier. They discover the officer had a reputation for being trigger-happy. It’s also made clear the reason Billy missed this account in his earlier research was because the Courier misspelled his grandfather’s name. What is clear, however, is that the murder of his great-grandpa made a big impact on the community, and brought them out in force in 1923. The horrible end note was that officer got acquitted within 10 minutes, while Billy’s great-grandpa was relegated to an unmarked grave. It’s clear when he visits that cemetery how profoundly this tragedy affects Porter, but there’s more history to unearth.
We then watch Billy investigating his father’s side of the family tree in Ohio. While there’s no murder in this account, there’s a different sort of drama, and lastly some reason to hope. He discovers these great-grandparents lived in Ohio as free people. They moved to the North before the Civil War, in a shocking stroke of luck. He then finds Dr. Christopher Bonner in Virginia, and learns more about those ancestors.
Porter’s ancestor Anne Gladman actually got emancipated by her own husband. Which wasn’t unheard of, but was still pretty surprising. Billy then has to travel to Lynchburg (a place he’s understandably not eager to visit) for more revelations. After talking with Dr. Laurantell Lee, a public historian and consultant, he learns how his grandpa was able to afford the emancipation of his entire family. He was a highly revered barber, not just for blacks but also for white folk.
While that side of the family was perhaps luckier than the other, they still were impacted by brutal laws written to curb black success, and punish them for the actions of those like Nat Turner, who led a bloody rebellion in 1831. As perhaps a direct result, their wealth went from 1300 to 800 in a few short years, but thankfully that didn’t stop them from living their lives. In contrast to his other ancestor, these grandparents had nice marble headstones, and Billy is thankful to see they made an impact on the world that lasts.
Overall, Billy learned some deep truths about his ancestry that explained how he was able to be such a profoundly strong and free individual. A good start to this season of Who Do You Think You Are? with many other amazing celebrity guests still to come.