‘A Nation Within a Nation’

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

Henry Louis Gates (Peter Simon)
Henry Louis Gates (Peter Simon)

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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.

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.