HLG: There were a couple of leitmotifs that made it unique. The first was the fact that we shot the scenes at the locales where they took place. So when I talked about Priscilla, I was standing on Bunce Island, for example. The other thing is, I was determined to put as many historians in the film as I possibly could, and many of them were women who had never been on TV before. So we covered five centuries, and while normally you’ll see historians sitting in a study or a library, we flew them to the locales where the events unfolded. No one had done that before. I was very proud of those innovations, and it worked.
TR: How could the series contribute to African-American history taught in the classroom?
HLG: One of its main purposes is to be used in high school and college classrooms. Until we have a text and DVD that can be used together to teach a whole survey course in African-American history, teachers will continue to say [they can’t teach it because] it’s too diffuse.
Now they can use the series to teach, along with its companion book. Both are finalists for NAACP Image Awards, which makes me very proud. This is the same model we experienced with the publication of The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. Until we did that in 1999, teachers would say it was too expensive, blah-blah. But once you provide a course in a DVD and a companion book, it can revolutionize the way in which African-American history is taught, and the number of courses taught. We’re hoping legislatures will mandate the teaching of black history and that teachers will use these resources.
Editor’s note: The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross can be purchased here.
Jenée Desmond-Harris is The Root’s senior staff writer. Follow her on Twitter.