'A Nation Within a Nation'

The Black Experience: 500 years of history in six hours of television and one companion book.

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My own fascination with African-American history began the day in junior high school when I saw a photograph of W.E.B. Du Bois. The caption under the picture told me he was the first black man to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard, but I wanted to know more. I wondered who this great man was, how he got there in the first place, and if I, too, might pursue a life of letters. But it would be Lerone Bennett's columns in Ebony magazine in the mid-1960s that fired my imagination at the height of the civil rights movement and even more passionately as I grew up with the birth of the Black Power movement. I once wrote in longhand to Mr. Bennett and asked him if he would collect his columns into a book, not realizing that his book Before the Mayflower: A History of the Negro in America, 1619–1964 was in fact being published. No doubt that helps to explain why when I went to Yale as an undergraduate, I gravitated to the history major. I entered Yale in September 1969, as one of 96 black women and men in the class of 1973, the first fruits of the American academy's adventure in affirmative action. As an undergraduate, I was most interested in American political and cultural history, under the direction of John Morton Blum. But the first course that I took in the history department was called Introduction to Afro-American History. Like just about everybody black at Yale in 1969, I enrolled in this large lecture course taught by William S. McFeely, who counted among his teaching fellows a graduate student named Thomas Holt.

It was already a legendary course; it had been taught previously by Eugene Genovese. And it unfolded week by week in the increasingly volatile atmosphere of escalating protests against the Vietnam War and the simultaneous escalation of the persecution of the Black Panther Party, as well as the trial of Panther leader Bobby Seale, taking place just down the street from Calhoun College, my Yale dormitory, in New Haven. The atmosphere in New Haven and on campus was extraordinarily explosive, and each of Professor McFeely's classes was something of an adventure as we waited for "the Revolution" to come pounding on our classroom door. Nobody missed any of those classes, first because of the quality of Professor McFeely's lectures, and second because the Panthers were likely to show up on any given day, demand "equal time" to espouse their "Ten Point Program" or attempt to intimidate us into giving donations for their meritorious "Free Breakfast Program."

Professor McFeely's lectures were vignettes about the black past which had an uncanny way of serving as allegories for what the black community was experiencing at that time. I well remember his "End of the Second Reconstruction" lecture, delivered just after President Richard M. Nixon, on Jan. 19, 1970, nominated the conservative judge G. Harrold Carswell to replace Justice Abe Fortas on the Supreme Court. The auditorium was packed; you could have heard a pin drop. Threatening clouds of reaction were on the horizon, Professor McFeely warned, and unless we were vigilant, the very policies that had brought all of us black kids to Yale were going to be reversed by a conservative court. It was history teaching designed as an extended metaphor for those who would soon be history makers. Bill McFeely, who would go on to win a Pulitzer Prize in history for his biography of U. S. Grant, was our guide into the wonders of African-American history.

But professor McFeely also taught me something else: and that is, that you don't have to look like the academic subject that you are studying or teaching to be an expert on that subject. No one has a monopoly on academic inquiry simply because of their ethnicity, gender, religion or sexual preference. And despite the fact that the more militant among us had a most annoying habit of standing up during the question period to ask him what he, a white man, was doing teaching a black history course, he never lost his patience or his composure, never once admonished the student for his or her rudeness. And he did all that he could to ensure that a black historian, John W. Blassingame, would be hired the very next year to replace him as head of that class. I owe so much of my love of African-American history to William S. McFeely, and it is for this reason that we have dedicated this book to him.

The documentary series of The African Americans is dedicated in memory of Henry Hampton. And so it is fitting that this book be dedicated in his memory as well, along with the dedication to William S. McFeely. Henry was born in 1940 and died all too soon, in 1998. He made 17 documentaries by my count, including the magnificent 14-episode series Eyes on the Prize, which was broadcast in two parts, the first covering the crucial years 1954 to 1965 of the civil rights movement, the second exploring its post-1965 afterlife. Eyes on the Prize is the gold standard of the historical documentary. Henry won seven Emmys, among a legion of other justly deserved awards and honors.

When I moved to Harvard in 1991, Henry invited me to his offices at Blackside, his film company, in Boston's South End. We hardly knew one another. Patiently, as if he had all the time in the world, he walked me through his stunningly efficient and elegant building, introducing me to his associates and partners, but more important, introducing me to the way in which documentary films are put together, from concept to filming, editing, and broadcast. He also talked to me about how to fund a film, as well as how to use academic consultants to produce the richest and most nuanced (and most historically accurate) documentaries possible. I'm not sure why he invited me to his studios or took so much of his time walking me through the production process. But by the time I left Blackside at the end of the day, I was hooked. I wasn't sure how I was going to do so, but I was determined that one day, if at all humanly possible, I would become a documentary filmmaker myself. I owe my commitment to making documentaries about the African-American experience to the inspiration of Henry Hampton.

Remember to tune in next Tuesday, Oct. 29, at 8 p.m. EDT for the second episode of professor Gates' new PBS series, The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, "The Age of Slavery." To check local listings, and to learn more about the series, visit PBS.org. To order the entire series on DVD, or to purchase the companion book, visit shoppbs.org.

This excerpt from The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Donald Yacovone, was provided courtesy of the publisher, SmileyBooks. Copyright 2013.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also the editor-in-chief of The Root.  Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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