Documenting 500 Years of African American History
Jana Lynn French; Video Editing by Connor Pannell - 3/9/2015
Henry Louis-Gates Jr. reaches back 500 years to illuminate the history of African Americans in his Peabody Award-winning work The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross. The six-part documentary series that first aired on PBS in 2013 dives deep into history that was difficult to trace. He delves into what Africa was like before the European slave trade, as well as how African Americans were involved in the American Revolution and Civil War. Gates is equally thorough when considers the Harlem Renaissance, integration in public schools and the “war on drugs.”
Because much of the history Gates explores predates video or film, he brings the tale to life with animated photographs and paintings. He also travels to many of the places he discusses to further illustrate his points. In several instances, he overlays those journeys with pictures of what the ground would have looked like at a specific time in history. These vivid visualizations create a stunning narrative for chapters of history otherwise difficult to envision. And as Gates reaches the eras for which video recordings and news clips are available, he gracefully edits them together with interviews to illustrate important aspects of the 20th and 21st centuries.
Much of the series focuses on events and artifacts that had an effect on the certain points in history Gates explores. The first episode highlights how European participation affected the existing African slave trade. Later in the series, Gates examines how modern stereotypes of African Americans emerged by looking through memorabilia from the Jim Crow era.
In an interview with Time Magazine that was posted the day the series premiered, Gates said he chose 2013 as the time to do his piece because the year held so many anniversaries for the African American community. “But in addition, it arrives at a time when we have a paradox in the black community: we have the best of times, and we have the worst of times,” Gates said in the interview. “It’s like we have two nations within the black community. So how did we get here?”
In answering the question, The African Americans looks at how black culture shaped American culture. Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson says in a clip in the introduction of episode one that “America probably wouldn’t have much of a popular culture without black people.” And throughout many of the episodes, Gates gets to the roots of African American culture and how these origins can be seen today. He explores the Harlem Renaissance, including how the Harlem clubs were a place where people of many races could “mingle in ways that were illegal in much of the rest of the country.”
Later, Gates examines the “Black is Beautiful” movement and the emergence of the TV series Soul Train with Thompson. “I think the most marvelous thing about the story of our ancestors is how they created a culture out of nothing,” Gates said in an interview with NPR’s Tell Me More in October 2013. “Nevertheless, they created one of the world’s great cultures.”
The African Americans is “the first series to capture 500 years of African American history,” Gates said in his post Peabody win interview. “The full sweep of African American history.”
This aspect alone makes the work distinct. He told NPR that “Hundreds of documentaries about the black experience have been made, but no one since Bill Cosby has tried to tackle in one documentary the story of our people’s presence in the United States from the start to the finish.”
Gates cites Cosby’s Black History: Lost, Stolen or Strayed as the program that sparked his love of African American history. And he said in the NPR interview that The African Americans was for “all the young people who, unlike us, didn’t watch Roots. It’s for anyone who’s curious about what African Americans have contributed to the great narrative of American history.”