Americans have notoriously short memories when it comes to race and history, especially black history. And it’s in that context that Harvard professor and The Root’s editor-in-chief, Henry Louis Gates Jr., has looked back through time to bring us The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, a six-part documentary film, airing on PBS, that concludes tonight and that has offered an important capstone to a year full of important civil rights anniversaries.
Over the past five weeks, the series has taken viewers to locations around the world to explore the origins of trans-Atlantic slavery, plumb the depth of America’s antebellum era and chronicle the exploits for black political, economic and cultural self-determination in the Civil War’s bloody aftermath.
And after watching this series, which is a timely corrective to contemporary discourse around race relations, all Americans will gain a better understanding of the way in which both the distant and recent past continue to shape and inform our national present.
“Rise!” last week's episode, examined the civil rights era’s heroic period, taking care to dwell on some of the era’s unsung activists, including Paul Robeson and Ella Baker, the founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (the group that gave us, among many others, Fannie Lou Hamer, Rep. John Lewis and black power icon Stokely Carmichael). The episode reminded us that the movement would not have been possible without both the steadfast courage of ordinary black citizens and the intellectual and political leadership of activists such as Rosa Parks and E.D. Nixon, whose organizing prowess cultivated the platform for the movement’s greatest mobilizer, Martin Luther King Jr.
And out of this era, a new politics, led by Malcolm X and then Stokely Carmichael—but personified in the militancy of thousands—erupted in full view of the nation by the mid 1960s, even though it had existed long before. The simmering discontent based on centuries of racial oppression catalyzed the black community in the late 1960s and served as a template for other racially and economically marginalized groups. By 1968, the year Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy would be assassinated, America had crossed a rubicon on race matters that directed the nation toward undiscovered territory.
It’s particularly fitting, then, that tonight’s concluding episode, “A More Perfect Union,” examines the period from 1968, when the Black Panthers emerged as the era’s boldest revolutionary organization, to 2013, a year that marked the triumph of the second inauguration of the nation’s first black president and national demonstrations in the wake of the George Zimmerman verdict and the Supreme Court’s voting-rights decision. What stands out most brilliantly in this episode is the discussion of Soul Train, the brainchild of entrepreneur and host Don Cornelius that became, more than a black version of American Bandstand, a cultural institution that simultaneously promoted self-love and exposed mainstream audiences to African-American expressive culture.
“A More Perfect Union” reminds us that the road from black power to Barack Obama encompassed more than just the political organizing and street demonstrations that have always been crucially important to the black freedom struggle. We see, also, that culture, in the form of music, literature, film, entertainment and sports, helped break down barriers that would catapult figures such as Michael Jordan, Oprah Winfrey and Barack Obama to undreamed-of heights.
Over the past 45 years—the period covered in the final installment of Many Rivers—black Americans have gone from being viewed in popular culture as something out of the figment of the white imagination to emerging as complicated, three-dimensional human beings. Soul Train’s biggest accomplishment, for example, and one that has been too often forgotten, was in providing African Americans with a television platform to love, appreciate and flaunt their unique cultural, aesthetic and musical flourishes. It helped transform “black is beautiful” from a simple black power-era catchphrase into a slogan that characterized new cultural realities.
Beyond the tangible victories of the past half century, however, institutional racism has continually reared its ugly head.
It is, in its basest and purest form, America’s birthright: an outgrowth of racial slavery that built an international economic empire structured on the inequality and subordination of black Americans in the United States and people of color around the world. Many Rivers untangles the many strands of that story while keeping black people and their heroic struggle to transform America at the narrative center. This entire series is essential viewing for students, scholars, activists and families of all backgrounds. If education remains the key to dialogue on race relations, then Many Rivers offers us a chance to continue the national conversation that politicians are too afraid to convene but that as citizens, we must.
Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy and a professor of history at Tufts University. He is also the Caperton fellow for the W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute at Harvard University. He is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America and Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama. His biography of Stokely Carmichael will be published next year by Basic Books. Follow him on Twitter.
Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is professor and founding director, the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America, Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama and Stokely: A Life. Follow him on Twitter.