The more I research the history of African Americans’ ancestors in this country, the more astonished I am by two seemingly contradictory things: First, how people from as many as 50 ethnic groups were plucked from West and West-Central Africa and then dispersed as property throughout the American slave community, North and South, and then with noble heroism and courage, determination and pure grit and great collective will, created one of the world’s truly great cultures; and second, at the extent of these same people’s surprising, often counterintuitive opinions within the race, as well as their widely varied beliefs and disagreements and debates, over just about every aspect of politics, culture, strategy, religion — you name it.
It seems as if our people have been arguing with each other about how best to ease their collective burden almost since the day the first group arrived as slaves on these shores! And why should that surprise us? Why should African Americans be any less complex than other groups of human beings? We sometimes tend to romanticize the black past, imagining a time when our people were united, when they “spoke with one voice.” Never happened!
Even at the worst times in African-American history, there seems never to have been one “African-American” opinion or pattern of behavior about much of anything, as far as I can tell. And that complexity, that insistence upon the integrity of the individual resonating within the group, is what, in part, has made African-American culture and our social institutions the vital forces that they are today. Ralph Ellison reminds us again and again that this is the essence of improvisation, and improvisation is the essence of African-American — and indeed American — culture. We see how this complexity unfolded in the pivotal events that define African-American history.
I have decided to share some of these “amazing facts” in a weekly column that we will publish here on The Root over the next year as we run up to the premiere of the PBS series. Some of these facts will be as surprising to you as they have been to us. Some you may find inspiring; others may infuriate you. One thing is for sure: Over the past 500 years, our ancestors in this country have been as stubborn, determined, idiosyncratic, individualistic, argumentative and complex as the 42 million African Americans living today are.
And when relevant, we will compare our take on a historical event with what Rogers had to say. Sometimes, he was astonishingly accurate; at other times, he seems to have been tripping a bit, shall we say, as in his “Amazing Fact #8,” which I quote in full: “Beethoven, the world’s greatest musician, was without a doubt a dark mulatto. He was called ‘The Black Spaniard.’ His teacher, the immortal Joseph Haydn, who wrote the music for the former Austrian National Anthem, was colored, too.”
Both claims are false, I am afraid, though I love the work of both composers! But no one can get everything right all the time, correct?
We’d love your suggestions and reactions to each of these columns. So, let’s begin with:
Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also the editor-in-chief of The Root.