Henry Louis Gates: Many Rivers to Cross at PBS

The New York Times

October 18, 2013
Black History’s Missing Chapters

The television mini-series “Roots,” about the slave Kunta Kinte and his descendants, is a classic, inspired by real lives and real history. But it is a truism among historians that young people do not know enough about African-American contributions to history. Even a tiny slice of recent history — the civil rights movement — is not required teaching in most states, the Southern Poverty Law Center found in a recent assessment.

“It boils down to Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King and ‘I Have a Dream,’ ” Maureen Costello, director of the center’s Teaching Tolerance Project, said of the typical level of knowledge. Films and the occasional series on black history have helped fill in the gaps, creating a kind of “cultural accretion,” Ms. Costello added, but television in recent years has not consistently offered informative entertainment.

When “Roots” was broadcast in 1977, “the whole nation watched it because there were three networks vying for our attention,” Ms. Costello said. “As a culture, we’ve become so fragmented. I think more Americans can reasonably discuss the meth trade or the Mafia because of ‘Breaking Bad’ and ‘The Sopranos’ than they can African-American history.”

Into the breach has stepped Henry Louis Gates Jr., assisted by dozens of historians. His six-part series, “The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross,” beginning on Tuesday on PBS, aims to chronicle 500 years of black history. The program starts with Juan Garrido, a free black man whose 1513 expedition with Spanish explorers in Florida made him the first known African to arrive in what is now the United States, and ends with Barack Obama in the White House in 2013, a time of complexity and contradictions for black Americans. In between, Professor Gates, director of the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard, draws on the latest scholarship to put flesh on characters like the resilient South Carolina slave girl Priscilla as well as her descendants.

“I first had the idea when I was 17 years old,” Professor Gates, an executive producer, writer and host of the series, said in a recent telephone interview. “I was at home in Piedmont, W. Va., watching television on our little black-and-white RCA Victor with my parents and Bill Cosby’s documentary ‘Black History: Lost, Stolen or Strayed,’ came on and I was riveted.”

That program, hosted by Mr. Cosby, was included in a seven-part series about a wide swath of black issues, said Tim Brooks, a television historian. Mr. Cosby’s segment looked at the search for racial identity; profiled inventors, surgeons and other black people left out of history books; and showed TV and film clips depicting the evolution of blacks in those mediums. By now there have been more than 100 documentaries about black history, but they have dealt with a particular segment of the story, Professor Gates said.

Mr. Brooks has not seen “The African Americans,” but said that by “covering in reasonable depth the whole sweep of black history until today, it is distinctive.”

Like Mr. Cosby’s program, broadcast in 1968, “The African Americans” lands on TV in a pivotal year, when the country’s racial past has been pushed front and center in politics and culture. The confluence of events includes the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the death of Trayvon Martin, and Supreme Court decisions on affirmative action and voting rights.

The “African Americans” also arrives amid an unusually large, diverse number of black feature films, some with historical elements, like “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” and “Twelve Years a Slave,” for which Professor Gates, a cultural historian and literary critic, was a consultant.

“We’re certainly in a renaissance of black film and the willingness to confront slavery,” said Professor Gates, who has presented several documentaries on history and genealogy, including “Black in Latin America” in 2011 and “Finding Your Roots” in 2012, both on PBS.

At the same time, he said, “there is a whole generation, a new generation; they’re very cosmopolitan, multiracial and ahistorical. They haven’t seen ‘Roots’ and they haven’t seen ‘Eyes on the Prize,’ ” the 1987 documentary about the civil rights movement.

Professor Gates began this project, which cost about $8 million, by putting a question to the historians: If you had six hours to tell 500 years of African-American history, what periods and stories would you include? After amassing 500 stories, Professor Gates and his creative team winnowed them down to 11 or 12 an episode.

“It is not just about the English and Africans at Jamestown, but the Spanish in the Southwest and at St. Augustine, the French in the Lower Mississippi Valley, the Dutch in New York,” said Ira Berlin, a professor at the University of Maryland and one of the historians consulted for the series. “It’s a whole new cast of characters.”

Khalil Gibran Muhammad, a historian and director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, said he hoped that the show would help “move the needle” on a much-needed comprehensive examination of black history. His concern is that not enough resources flow to public schools and other institutions where most learning takes place, especially since films and television do not always get things right.

And there is an appetite for the work, he said. Many sophisticated young people “see the past as a cautionary note,” he said. “These people I’m describing are using history to make contemporary critiques on race, commenting on the deeply fragile state of race relations.”

But history cannot be used if it is not adequately taught, Dr. Muhammad said, and he contends that these lessons still face political and social land mines. “Our young people are not being taught these lessons in school because these questions inevitably lead to challenging the status quo,” he said.

A DVD of “The African Americans” and a companion book are intended to provide a one-stop resource for students at many levels. The show’s Web site at PBS.org will elaborate on the history in the program. In New York, the public television station WNET is also creating middle and high school lesson plans for each episode.

Professor Gates said that one of his motives was to provide tools to other teachers and schools. “We shape citizens through our schools and it’s done invisibly,” he said. Lessons about the Pilgrims, George Washington and others “are designed to mold a certain attitude that makes you an American citizen,” he said. “Well, what’s been left out historically is us: the contributions of African-Americans.”

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