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A conversation with Henry Louis Gates
Scholar shares why PBS series is his most important
Published Thursday, October 3, 2013
by Michaela L. Duckett

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Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr. presents a new series on black history, "The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross." The six-part documentary premieres Oct. 22 at 8 p.m. on PBS.

Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. is back with a new TV series. “The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross” premieres Oct. 22 at 8 p.m. on PBS.

“’The African Americans’ is the first comprehensive look at the whole sweep of African-American history starting in 1513 and ending 500 years later with the (second) inauguration of President (Barack) Obama,” said Gates. “No one has tried to do that since Bill Cosby did a series in 1968 called ‘Black History: Lost, Stolen or Strayed.’”

Gates, who is one of the nation’s leading scholars on African-American history, said watching Cosby’s documentary as a teenager is what peaked his interest in studying and chronicling the heritage of black people.

Gates made his first documentary in 1994. “The African Americans” is his 13th. He considers the six-part series the third leg of a trilogy, which includes the 1998 production “Wonders of the African World” about classical, ancient African civilization and “Black in Latin America,” which he produced in 2010 about the new world experience of black people south of the U.S. border.

“Think of it as a triangle,” he said. “These are the three points of the black world – Africa, Latin America and now the United States. So this is the third arm in the triangle or the third episode in the trilogy of our people.”

To produce the series, Gates enlisted the help of 40 historians, hired as consultants to submit stories they felt were most indispensible to African-American history. Gates and his team took the suggestions, which he said numbered in the thousands, and whittled them down to 70 stories that could be told chronologically in six one-hour episodes.

In each episode, Gates takes the scholars on location where significant events occurred to conduct interviews onsite and tell the stories of African Americans.

Gates said the series is full of surprises. Even he learned a few lessons during production, including that free black people came to America and established communities long before Africans arrived as slaves in the English colonies.

“Most of us were taught that the first slaves who came to the United States came in 1619,” he said. “The first African that we know by name came to Florida in 1513. And he wasn’t even a slave. He was free. He was a conquistador. He came with (Spanish explorer) Juan Ponce de Leon. He was a bad brother named Juan Garrido.”

Gates said the series is by far his most important work to date because it encompasses the full trajectory of African-American history in a way that has not been done before.

“The stories are so good,” he said. “Our people came here – 388,000 from Africa. And those 388,000 Africans who came here directly as slaves turned into 42 million of us today and against the greatest odds. I mean, we came as slaves, by and large, and yet, 500 years later after the first one came there is a black man in the White House. That is a story of triumph. How did our people retain hope? How did they make a way out of no way, as the black tradition puts it? How did they sustain belief? It’s a miracle – the survival and growth of the African-American people.”

Charlotte-based Bank of America is the lead sponsor for the series. Charles Bowman, Bank of America’s North Carolina and Charlotte market president, said that with a global workforce in more than 40 countries, the bank got behind the project because it understands the value in supporting projects that reflect culture and diversity.

“We really do think that connecting with the past and our heritage and different cultures is important to our future,” said Bowman. “It’s an important topic for all of us to understand.”

Bowman said he hopes the series will provoke thought and lead to more in-depth discussions on race in America.

“I think (Gates) will energize people,” he said. “He’s incredibly articulate. He’s entertaining, and he blows away a lot of your previous conceptions about a lot of things… If I could wish for one thing it would be that there are many, many more conversations that come out of this to talk about issues that really matter to this community as we move forward.”

Check out these video excerpts from our exclusive one-on-one interview with Gates.


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