BEVERLY HILLS – In a time of heightened division about American identity, Henry Louis Gates Jr. believes the message of PBS's "Finding Your Roots" is needed more than ever.
Gates appeared Monday at the Television Critics Association summer press tour, joined by "One Day at a Time" star Justina Machado and actress and comedian Sasheer Zamata ("Saturday Night Live"), two of the celebrity subjects for Season 6 of the genealogical exploration (Oct. 8, check local listings).
Gates said "Roots" shows our connections as Americans at a time when many, including President Trump, are focusing on divisions.
Gates, a Harvard professor, didn't mention Trump by name, but he alluded to the president's recent tweet telling four Democratic congresswomen of color to "go back" to their countries, when all four are American citizens and three were born in the U.S.
"The subtle political takeaway of our show, particularly in a time when the idea that we are bonded together as a people in spite of our differences is under so much stress … is we're all descended from immigrants, whether our ancestors came here willingly, or like our black ancestors, unwillingly. We all came from somewhere else," he said.
"Under the skin, no matter our apparent differences, we are 99.9 percent the same. … If we needed that message when we began this show, we need it urgently today." he said.
Gates said "Roots," which traces guests' ancestral roots and tells them the strands of their ethnic heritage, shows an interconnection – guests are often surprised by their ancestral mix – at a time when some are questioning who belongs in the U.S.
"People want that reassurance that we're all the same, that those who are trying to divide us because of our apparent differences … Who has the right to be in America? Who really is an American?" he said, before paraphrasing Trump's tweet. "Go home? Guess what? We're all home. This is our home."
Besides Machado and Zamata, Other Season 6 guests include Melissa McCarthy, Jordan Peele, Issa Rae, Queen Latifah, Eric Stonestreet, RuPaul and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.
Zamata, who learned of an ancestor who was born into slavery before eventually creating a town in Arkansas, said she was excited about the opportunity to learn about her genealogical history, but not necessarily prepared.
She went in with the attitude that "nothing's going to shock me and then I was completely shocked and blindsided."
Machado, who learned that a past male relative had been jailed in Puerto Rico for having sex with a man, found the revelations about her family "fascinating and really touching."
Of her ancestor, she said, "It's hard to digest. It's almost like he didn't have a chance. He was really poor. He cut sugar cane. He went to jail for the first time when he was 18 or 19 for petty theft. What happened in that jail mapped out the rest of his life," she said. "It is very ironic that I am on a show ("One Day") that is so positive" about LGBTQ matters.
After the panel, Gates was asked whether he would invite President Trump to take part in "Roots." He said PBS won't let people running for president appear on the show, and that the issue came up regarding U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), who was interviewed for the series before announcing her campaign for president.
As for whether he would want Trump as a guest, Gates said political views don't affect whether "Roots" would feature a particular person.
"Does ideology of the person affect our choice? The answer is no. We've shown that with Marco Rubio and John McCain, people who actually do not share my own personal politics," he said. "But I put my politics aside when I'm picking guests. … It has to do with the presidential thing. I've been after (U.S. Sen.) Kamala Harris for years and I can't do Kamala Harris – she's a friend – because she's running for president."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Finding Your Roots' host Gates on Trump tweet: 'We're all home'