Lately, comic Wanda Sykes said, she’ll find herself on awalk thinking about her ninth paternal great-grandmother.
That ancestor, an indentured servant named Elizabeth Banks, was given 39 lashes in 1683 for “fornication & Bastardy with a negroe slave,” according to Virginia court documents.
“You try to romanticize it,” Sykes said. “Maybe she really liked this slave.”
Because Banks was white, her relationship with a black slave was considered a crime. Also because Banks was white, experts were able to trace Sykes’ genealogy well beyond most African-Americans.
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“Why are there so few African-Americans that can trace their roots?” asked Sykes. “It’s because of slavery.”
Slavery isn’t exactly great comedy fodder for Sykes’ live act, which comes to the Chumash Casino next Thursday. But it does make for interesting discussion on this Sunday’s “Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates Jr.,” at 8 p.m. on PBS.
Before her appearance on the show, Sykes’ knowledge of her family was pretty limited. She grew up in the D.C. area, where her father was a U.S. Army colonel who worked at the Pentagon and her mother was a banker. Following a path to government work typical in the suburbs, Sykes earned a marketing degree from Hampton University and went to work as a procurement officer (“I shopped all day.”) for the National Security Agency.
But in 1992 — despite the nation being in the throes of a recession — Sykes left her government job of five years.
“I just couldn’t take being there any more,” she said. “I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a stand-up comic.”
She had been performing on weekends, actually making enough money to take the plunge, which paid off. After opening for comic Chris Rock, she joined the writing staff of “The Chris Rock Show” in 1997, and her career skyrocketed. Since then, she’s been a headlining comic, author and actor best known for her roles on “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “The New Adventures of Old Christine” and numerous cartoon voice-overs.
“I love doing the animated voice-over thing,” said Sykes, whose animated credits include “Barnyard,” “Rio” and the upcoming “Ice Age: Continental Drift.” “I love it because it’s close to what we do as far as comedy: You walk in, you grab the mike, you do the show. ... You don’t have to go to hair and makeup, you don’t have to go to wardrobe, for all these fittings, you don’t have to wait around for them to light the set. You just walk in and the director says, ‘OK, the script is on the stand in there.’ You go in the booth and you just knock it out.”
Her role in the upcoming film “The Hot Flashes,” by contrast, took a little more prep time. The movie, costarring Brooke Shields, Virginia Madsen and Daryl Hannah, is about a former girls high school basketball team that challenges the current high school squad for charity.
“We had to go to basketball camp and everything,” Sykes said. “It’s probably been 20 years since I played. Some of the things came back to me, but, man, that first week killed us. We were all taking Epsom salt baths.”
All the while, Sykes has continued to do stand-up, which includes several HBO specials and a gig razzing President Obama at the 2009 White House correspondents’ dinner.
“I am a supporter, so there was no way I was going to turn that down,” she said.
It was while keeping with her normally busy schedule that she was contacted by Gates, a Harvard professor, about the ancestry series, which traces the roots of various celebrities. (Gates, who was arrested by a white police officer while trying to gain entrance to his locked home, famously had a “beer summit” with President Obama and the officer in 2009.)
“He emailed me one day and said that he was a fan and that he would love to trace my roots for his show,” Sykes said.
Sykes agreed, curious to know what he might find.
“I thought there’d be some Native-American heritage,” she said. “But that didn’t happen. And also it was disappointing because you have four grandparents and only one of them they were able to trace. So it was kind of bittersweet. Because you look at the other three, and you go, ‘They were all slaves, so there’s no history.’ They were just property.”
Reach Patrick S. Pemberton at 781-7903.