PBS Series Explores Black History
After a tragedy like the Trayvon Martin killing, calls routinely arise for a conversation about race. But Henry Louis Gates thinks the more direct way for structural change is through schools and their curriculum.
That’s what he’s hoping will happen with “The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross,” a six-hour PBS documentary series that traces 500 years of black history.
“To tell the whole sweep of African-American history — no one’s tried to do that. That was what we were crazy enough to do,” Gates said in an interview on Wednesday.
He hopes the series will find its way into the nation’s schools as well as its living rooms, and acquaint audiences of all ages — both black and white — with black history, about which he says both races are equally ignorant.
“How can I help with the conversation about race? Schools are tools for the formation of citizenship. My target is the school curriculum: getting an integrated story told,” he said.
An author, Harvard scholar, social critic and filmmaker, Gates has produced such past documentary series as “Wonders of the African World” and “Finding Your Roots.”
In this latest project, he reaches back to the beginning — which turns out to be about a century earlier than many accounts of black history in the New World.
“The very first African to come to North America was a free man accompanying Ponce de Leon who arrived in Florida in 1513, more than a century before the first 20 Africans arrived in Jamestown in 1620,” Gates said. “Nobody was talking about those first 107 years of African-American history.”
Gates has also tried to get the inside story that he says has commonly eluded historians.
“I’ve always been struck by the quality of conversations in a black beauty parlor or a black barber shop, as opposed to what black officials say or what black teachers write in a textbook,” Gates said, “because we edit ourselves.
“I wanted to get the subjects in the film to speak to me as we would speak to each other behind closed doors.”
Gates said that between 1501 and 1866, 388,000 slaves were brought from Africa to the United States, with 42 million of their descendants alive today.
“We want to tell about the world they created, how they survived, and how they eventually thrived,” he said. “This isn’t the history of George Washington, it’s the history of his slave, Harry Washington. This isn’t the story of ‘American Bandstand,’ it’s the story of ‘Soul Train.'”
“The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross” premieres October 22.
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