(The Root) — “The story of the African-American people is the story of the settlement and growth of America itself, a universal tale that all people should experience,” says Henry Louis Gates Jr., the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African-American Research at Harvard University.
Gates, who is also The Root’s editor-in-chief, is now offering that experience in the form of a six-part series he’s written and directed for PBS. The first episode of African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross With Henry Louis Gates, Jr. airs Tuesday night.
The series begins with the origins of slavery in Africa and covers five centuries of historic events right up to the present by highlighting 70 stories developed in collaboration with 40 historians. As the series host, professor Gates travels throughout the United States, leading viewers on a journey through African-American history. He visits key historical sites, debates with some of America’s top historians and interviews eyewitnesses.
Beyond providing a comprehensive black-history curriculum, the series is designed to make one thing clear: “There’s no America without African Americans,” says Gates.
He spoke to The Root about the program’s surprises and lessons and how he hopes it will be received.
The Root: What about the series will be most surprising to viewers?
Henry Louis Gates Jr.: I think the most surprising thing to many viewers will be that [the first] African Americans did not arrive in 1619, when … 20 Africans arrived at Point Comfort, Virginia, and were transported to Jamestown. Rather, it was a century before that, in Florida, when the first black man whose name we actually knew arrived, in 1513.
Juan Garrido was a free black man, not a slave. He was a conquistador, and like the others, he was looking for the fountain of youth. He went to Baja California, Mexico, looking for the black Amazons. We even have a petition he filed to [the] king of Spain asking for a pension. He claims he was the first person ever to sow wheat in the New World. [In the series] we trace the arc of black history from Juan Garrido’s riveting story to, half a millennium later, another black man who happens to be president of the United States.
Another big surprise is the role of Africans in slave trade. I’ve written about it before and it upsets people, but it’s the truth. According to historians Linda Heywood and John Thornton, 90 percent of Africans shipped across the Atlantic were captured by other Africans.
TR: PBS’s description of the series says the “African-American community … has never been a uniform entity, and that its members have been actively debating their differences from their first days in this country.” Why is it important to communicate that?