'A Nation Within a Nation'

Henry Louis Gates (Peter Simon)
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.


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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