On Tuesday’s episode of Finding Your Roots, “In Search of Freedom,” Henry Louis Gates Jr. goes into the ancestral lineages of three black celebrities: Keenan Ivory Wayans, Shonda Rhimes, and Maya Rudolph. Rudolph is notably the daughter of a show-business union between black singer-songwriter Minnie Riperton and white producer-composer Richard Rudolph. “I have this thing where I just feel I can be anyone,” she says on the episode. “I think being mixed, too, I kind of, sort of grew up feeling a little orphaned by the idea of my heritage.”
Delving into Rudolph’s maternal side, Gates is able to identify two of the former SNL star’s ancestors, Manuel Grigsby and Mary Thurman, both of whom were born into slavery. Rudolph looks at a record of the slaves that the slave-owner John Warren Grigsby owned. There aren’t names, but knowing the age, she is able to identify the 5-year-old child as Manuel Grigsby, one of her maternal ancestors. “You just don’t think of details because you don’t have them,” Rudolph says as she begins to cry.
But it’s not all tears! One of Rudolph’s ancestors sued the grandson of their slave-owners who had continued to exploit their labor without pay — and won! “How is that even possible?” Rudolph says. “I can’t imagine what the odds could have been, and then they went in his favor. To me, that’s tremendous courage.” After a pause, she adds, “Yeah, they’re my people. That’s really cool.”