Maya Rudolph appeared on Tuesday’s episode of Finding Your Roots. She hoped to learn more about her heritage. What she learned, however, was in some ways deeply disturbing to the SNL alum.
“I have this thing where I just feel I can be anyone,” Maya Rudolph told host Henry Louis Gates Jr. of her life as the biracial daughter of the late soul singer Minnie Riperton and music composer and producer Richard Rudolph. “And I think being mixed, too, I kind of, sort of grew up feeling a little orphaned by the idea of my heritage.”
“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,” she added. “I want to go as far back as possible.”
— New York Daily News (@NYDailyNews) January 20, 2016
What Maya Rudolph learned was that a maternal ancestor was a freed slave who’d been denied the compensation due him in his owner’s will. In the 1830’s he challenged the slave owner’s grandson and won.
“How is that even possible?” Rudolph asks. “I can’t imagine what the odds could have been, and then they went in his favor. To me, that’s tremendous courage.”
Shortly thereafter, Maya Rudolph burst into tears. Shonda Rimes recently had a similar reaction when she learned she had slaves as ancestors.
— E! Online (@eonline) January 20, 2016
“We always have a box of tissues,” Gates says in an interview with People magazine. “Most guests will cry, male and female, and we don’t know when it will happen. There’s no way to predict it. When Shonda sees that she has an ancestor named Matilda who was a slave, she says, ‘I wanted to name my daughter Matilda,’ and she breaks down. You just don’t know where that moment of complete empathy [will happen]. It’s almost as if they are stepping inside the identity of an ancestor.”
This experience no doubt helped Maya Rudolph find what she was missing from her heritage. It also left an impact that will likely shape who she is from that point forward.