PBS’ The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, the six-part history series that aired late last year, is set to be released on DVD Jan. 28. Writer and executive producer Henry Louis Gates Jr. is hoping that it has far greater impact than just the sale of commemorative copies: He is hoping that it can be used as an educational tool in schools across the country.
Gates, the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University, as well as The Root’s editor-in-chief, wrote and executive produced the project in consultation with forty historians. He is also its narrator, leading viewers through 70 stories beginning with the origins of slavery in Africa and navigating five centuries of events right up to the present. With the DVD release, Gates believes that the series, along with its companion book, can eliminate educators’ excuses for letting African-American history fall by the wayside.
Gates told The Root about the most meaningful reactions to Many Rivers, how the unique approach to production helped earn it more than 10 million viewers and why he believes it can make comprehensive black-history courses widely accessible—finally.
The Root: What were some of the best reactions to the series?
Henry Louis Gates Jr.: The review in the New Yorker was the review of a lifetime. Hilton Als called the series “magisterial,” and since he’s a critic I admire, that was one of my favorite reviews. Also, the two pieces the New York Times ran: a review by Anita Gates and a feature by Felicia Lee.
I was just reading a paper written by a student at Boston University, Max Gonzalez, who watched it in a seminar taught by Linda Heywood, a consultant for the film and Director of the African-American Studies Program at BU, and he just talks about how moved he was to watch, how it brought history to life, how we didn’t avoid the difficult subjects. For example, we covered African complicity in the slave trade, but at the same time we showed that Europeans were the ones who profited.
He also pointed out … the way we personalize the history. You can talk about the slave trade all day, but when you talk about a little girl named Priscilla who comes from Sierra Leone, then slavery has name, gender and an age. You bring it to life.
TR: More than 10 million viewers tuned in. What do you think made the series appealing?
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.