'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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Henry Louis Gates (Peter Simon)

We're taking a break from the weekly 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro series to bring you an exclusive excerpt from the introduction to The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, a companion book to the upcoming six-part PBS series of the same title.

"The most magnificent drama in the last thousand years of human history is the transportation of ten million human beings out of the dark beauty of their mother continent into the new-found El Dorado of the West. They descended into Hell; and in the third century they arose from the dead, in the finest effort to achieve democracy for the working millions which this world had ever seen. It was a tragedy that beggared the Greek; it was an upheaval of humanity like the Reformation and the French Revolution." --W.E.B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America: 1860-1880

The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross is a companion book to the six-part, six hour PBS series of the same title, aired for the first time on national, prime-time broadcast in the fall of 2013 (beginning with episode 1, "The Black Atlantic," tomorrow night, Oct. 22, from 8-9 p.m. EDT on PBS, and every Tuesday through Nov. 26). This book (which I co-authored with Donald Yacovone) is the basis of the series and presents in much greater detail the 500-year history of the African-American people since the black Spanish conquistador Juan Garrido accompanied Ponce de León on his expedition into what is now the state of Florida. It is entirely fitting that the publication of this book and the airing of the television series coincide with this very important 500th anniversary of the presence of persons of African descent in what is today the continental United States.

The African Americans is the first documentary series -- since the nine-part History of the Negro People aired on National Educational Television in 1965, and the one-hour documentary, Black History: Lost, Stolen, or Strayed, narrated by Bill Cosby and broadcast in 1968 -- to chronicle the full sweep of African-American history from the origins of the transatlantic slave trade on the west and central coasts of sub-Saharan Africa through five centuries of remarkable historical events right up to today, when our country has a black president yet remains a nation deeply divided by race and class. Indeed, the series and this book end with accounts of the reelection and second inauguration of President Barack Hussein Obama.

One of the central themes of The African Americans is the exploration of the diversity of ethnic origins of the people from Africa and their descendants whose enslavement led to the creation of the African-American people, as well as the multiplicity of cultural institutions, political strategies and beliefs, and religious and social institutions that the African-American people have created since Juan Garrido and other Africans first explored these shores. All of these elements have defined black society and culture in its extraordinarily rich and compelling diversity over this half millennium: from slavery to freedom, from the plantation to the presidency, from Black Power to the White House. By highlighting the complex internal debates and divisions within the Black Experience historically, The African Americans seeks to show through fascinating stories about the lives of the people whose sacrifices and dreams made black history the rich diversity and resilience of the African-American community, which the black abolitionist Martin R. Delany perceptively described as early as the 1850s as "a nation within a nation."

Black America, as we will see, has never been a truly uniform entity; in fact, its members have been expressing their differences of opinion from their very first days in this country. Even the road to freedom was not linear; rather, it flowed much like the course of a river, full of loops and eddies, slowing and occasionally reversing current, until ultimately finding its outlet. The African Americans also emphasizes the idea that African-American history encompasses multiple continents and venues, and must be viewed through a transnational perspective to be fully understood, even -- or especially -- in the earliest years of the history of the slave trade and the institution of slavery, revealing the connections among the experiences of black people in the United States, Haiti, Cuba, Jamaica and Mexico, for example.

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 This book is composed of stories about black people who were both pioneering and innovative, with the human endeavors of ordinary individuals, unsung heroes whose passions and beliefs changed their world or shaped the worlds that black people made and occupied. In other words, The African Americans is an account of emblematic people, individuals whose stories put a name and a face on a large and complex historical period.

But we also stress material history, especially technological developments and advances, the ways in which trade, industry and inventions such as the sextant, the slave ship, the cotton gin, the printing press, chromolithography, radio and the video camera shaped African-American history. This is a story, in part, about how a commodity, cotton, was used to turn a group of human beings into commodities, and how those human beings continued to assert their agency, their subjectivity, until finally gaining their freedom. This is a book and a documentary series about how black people, interacting with other human beings in this country and abroad, built their world.

The African Americans foregrounds the marvelous internal worlds of culture and social institutions, both sacred and secular, that black people created in this country within their own spheres of existence, spheres at once self-contained yet reflecting, interacting and deconstructing with the larger white world that surrounded them. Above all else, this book is concerned with showing that even in the midst of great political adversity and personal vulnerability, even under the harshest conditions, black people for 500 years have explored the fullest range of human emotions and actions, falling in and out of love, inventing novel ways to worship, stressing over the fate and fortunes of their children and wondering about God's purpose for their lives and their afterlives. In other words, the Black Experience is just one wondrous rendition of the larger experience of being a human being and collectively fashioning a civilization.