A Journey Through 500 Years of African-American History

For a producer, working on Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s PBS documentary series Many Rivers to Cross was an inspiring voyage.

Peter Simon

This fall, my colleagues and I completed work on Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s documentary series The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, which began airing nationally on PBS in October. In six one-hour episodes, the series traces the history of the African-American people, from the 16th century—when Juan Garrido, a free black man, arrived on these shores with Hernando Cortes, searching for gold—to today, when our nation has re-elected its first black president, yet still struggles with staggering racial disparities in education, poverty and incarceration rates.

At first the task of winnowing 500 years of African-American history down to six hours of television seemed like an insoluble conundrum. How could one documentary series possibly cover this vast sweep of history?

The premise advanced by Gates—the series’ creator, executive producer and host, as well as editor-in-chief of The Root—was deceptively simple: to tell this history from an African-American perspective, depicting the agency and unfathomable resilience of a people brought here against their will—who ended up defining this country, its society and its culture against often insurmountable odds.

We began by seeking the counsel of our advisory board, a host of the field’s most eminent historians and scholars. With their guidance, we sifted through endless lists of stories, each of which seemed more essential than the last. The scholars’ views as to which stories and individuals deserved priority were often at odds with one another. As television producers, we relish probing conflicting ideas, but we needed to find a path through the jungle of scholarly debate. Fortunately, the guiding light came from the stories themselves.

As we waded through five centuries of history, we were constantly struck by how relevant many of the stories still felt, and how powerfully they resonated with what we read about in the news every day. The deeper we delved into our story research, the more we were reminded of William Faulkner’s oft-quoted words: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

While exploring the well-known biography of Harriet Tubman, for instance, we simultaneously discovered the remarkable story of Terrence Stevens, a Harlem resident unjustly sent to prison in 1992, at the height of the war on drugs. After serving almost a decade in unbearable conditions (Stevens, who suffers from muscular dystrophy, received no specialized care during most of his time in prison), he emerged with a fierce determination to help children who had lost their parents to incarceration. His efforts to dismantle the cradle-to-prison pipeline, one individual at a time, recall Tubman’s courageous forays to rescue individuals from slavery in the 1850s. The stubborn efforts of both Tubman and Stevens evoke W.E.B. Du Bois’ still-potent admonition: “There is in this world no such force as the force of a person determined to rise.”

Historical parallels cropped up throughout our work on the series. While studying the disappointing fate of black elected officials at the end of Reconstruction, day by day we observed the Birthers and opponents of “Obamacare” acting out scripts that could have been written in the 1880s—whether or not they realized it consciously. (We were deep into production on the first episodes before we knew whether our series might end with the story of a one-term black president.)

And as we considered whether to include the story of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old Chicago boy tragically killed in Mississippi in 1955, we followed the trial of George Zimmerman, who fatally shot another unarmed black teenager, Trayvon Martin, more than half a century later in Florida. When Zimmerman—just like Emmett’s murderers—was ultimately acquitted, it felt as though time had stood still. Except that, in 2013 our African-American president acknowledged that Trayvon “could have been me 35 years ago.”

Some of the most iconic stories, such as John Lewis’ heroic march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., on Bloody Sunday in 1965, took on the urgency of current events. While Selma paved the way for the passage of the Voting Rights Act, that same act was being gutted before our eyes, in real time, as we scripted and filmed that story for the series. The controversial rise and rapid fall of affirmative action provided another fast-moving target.