Must Watch Alert: PBS “Many Rivers to Cross”

Talk about history we need: Professor Henry Louis Gates and PBS have put together a six part mini-series, “The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross,” that starts with the black man who accompanied Ponce de Leon as they first stepped foot on Florida and ends with President Barack Obama.*

The description from their website reads:

Written and presented by Professor Gates, the six-hour series explores the evolution of the African-American people, as well as the multiplicity of cultural institutions, political strategies, and religious and social perspectives they developed — forging their own history, culture and society against unimaginable odds. Commencing with the origins of slavery in Africa, the series moves through five centuries of remarkable historic events right up to the present — when America is led by a black president, yet remains a nation deeply divided by race.

Salon also currently has a tremendous interview with Professor Gates on the film and on the inadequacies of our education when it comes to the African American aspects of American History. (Henry Louis Gates: “Since slavery ended, all political movements have been about race”, , Slate, October 20, 2013) There are too many good passages to quote, but here are just a few snippets:


I think one of the other reasons that I wanted to make this series, is that we’re living in the time – the best of times and the worst of times – we have a black president, statistically the black upper middle class has quadrupled since 1968 when Dr. Martin Luther King was killed. But on the other hand, the percentage of African-American children living at or beneath the poverty line is just slightly less than when Dr. King was living. And we have more black men in prison than Martin Luther King, Du Bois or anyone else could have ever imagined. We have this huge black-white wealth gap, but we also have a black-black wealth gap between the black haves and have-nots. So how did we get to this curious place? That’s why I wanted to make this series and the roots go back for that 500 years with a lot of twists and turns. I wanted to create a tool. It could be used in a classroom to facilitate a true conversation about race, we could talk about what I mean about that. I wanted it to be an explanatory agent, in terms of helping us understand the paradoxical contradictions that we have today in our society between more black people doing well in every field and so many black people doing terribly. How did we get here?


I don’t want there to be a time when we’re colorless. I just don’t want your Italian heritage and my African heritage and Irish heritage, in my case, to be used to limit your possibilities or mine to limit my possibilities. When you could wear your ancestry, your sexual preference, your gender orientation, your religion, your color, what have you – you can wear it without penalty. And that’s what, that’s what situation we haven’t achieved in this country. It still matters that you are black or gay or a woman or Jewish, and I’m sure Italian, in some contexts.


Everyone talks about the “conversation on race.” Every time we need a “conversation on race.” The only place where a meaningful conversation with long-term impact can happen is in the schools, and can only happen if nobody uses the words “conversation about race.” What do I mean by that? Schools are the vehicle to create citizenship and you learn it osmotically. Nobody says, “Daniel, I’m going to teach you to be a good citizen.” You learn the Pledge of Allegiance, “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” “America the Beautiful,” George Washington chopped down the cherry tree and never told a lie. All of this is how we become citizens. And what’s been left out of that conversation is race, honest conversations about race. But not feel-good talk. I’m talking about [the slave] Harry Washington and George. I’m talking about the economic role of slavery in the creation of America. The fact that the richest cotton-growing soil happened to be inhabited by five civilized tribes, what they called themselves, and that had to be exterminated, removed and or exterminated for the greatest economic boom in American history to occur. The Trail of Tears, the cotton boom from 1820 to 1860. I’m not talking about politically correct history, I’m talking about correct history.

That’s enough I guess. Go read the article and watch the series. Then talk with others about the series.

*Full disclosure – They filmed part of this series at a site I used to work at and I got to be there the day of the filming, meet Professor Gates, and bask in history.


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