HLG: As a professor I’m surrounded by young African Americans every day, and sometimes they talk wistfully about the 1960s: “Oh, professor Gates, the good old days were when people were united.” I bust out laughing because there’s always been left, right and center. There’s always been people who analyzed the concept of racism, and people who didn’t — I would think that those kind of debates extended to the first people who arrived in Jamestown.
There are 42 million African Americans, there are 34.8 million Canadians — but nobody in their right mind would talk about the Canadian community or the leader of Canadian people. I want all of our people to know that however idiosyncratically black they are, they’re still black.
TR: What makes the series unique?
HLG: This isn’t the story of just George Washington; we tell it through his slave Harry Washington. It’s not just Lincoln and the civil war, but the story of 500,000 people who left their masters and joined the Union Army. It’s not just American Bandstand, it’s Soul Train and how black culture became the lingua franca of American pop culture.
Just as effective in the series is the showing of black agency and self-determination. About 45 ethnic groups were represented in slave trade, and they came here with nothing, but they created one of the world’s great civilizations, and out of it came African-American culture.
TR: What are the goals of the series?
HLG: First, to show that black culture is inextricably intertwined with American culture. There’s no America without African Americans.
Second, to provide a tool that teachers can use to enact the conversation about race every day in the classroom. Every day’s gotta be Black History Month. Just like with citizenship, for example: A teacher doesn’t say, “Today I’m going to teach you how to be a citizen.” It’s taught every day.
Comparably, when people hear the story of Ponce de León, they need to hear Juan Garrido. When they hear about George Washington, they need to know that he was the biggest slaveholder, and several of his slaves ran away and joined the enemy fighting him. They need to know that Harry Washington ended up in Sierra Leone via Nova Scotia. They need to know about Ella Baker, who created the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and that one of the first instructors of freedmen at Hampton, Virginia, was Mary Peake.
We tell 70 stories in the six-hour series. They were arrived at in collaboration with a team of historians. Each had to be exemplary of larger trends or themes; each had to have a greater meaning. These stories are important.
African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross With Henry Louis Gates, Jr. premieres on Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2013, at 8 p.m. ET on PBS and airs six consecutive Tuesdays through Nov. 26, 2013. Check local listings.
Jenée Desmond-Harris is The Root’s staff writer and White House correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.