Editor's note: The Root's editor-in-chief, Henry Louis Gates Jr., was one of 14 recipients Tuesday night of an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award for his six-part PBS documentary, The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross. Here's his acceptance speech for the award:
Thank you so very much, Cynthia McFadden, for that very kind introduction. I sat on the board of the Pulitzer Prize just across the campus in the World Room of the Pulitzer Building, and during that entire time, it never once occurred to me that I could be part of a team that could win its cousin, the award nicknamed "the Pulitzer Prize for broadcast journalism," the keenly competitive Alfred I. duPont-Columbia Award.
In January 1968, I sat in the living room of our workipng-class home in Piedmont, W.Va., and on a small black-and-white TV set watched a documentary called Black History: Lost, Stolen or Strayed, hosted by Bill Cosby. While it was quite fragmentary and lasted only one hour, I was riveted; it was the first time I heard anything about the subject of black history. It opened up a world of wonder to me; I was hooked. In spite of being raised to be a doctor, when I went to Yale a year later, the first course I enrolled in was a survey course in African-American history, taught by Professor William McFeely. I loved that class. I guess, in retrospect, the die, as they say, was cast the day I heard his first lecture and read the first chapter of our textbook, John Hope Franklin's From Slavery to Freedom.
In July 1991, Anthony Appiah and I moved from Duke to Harvard, with the charge of rebuilding a moribund department of Afro-American studies. Shortly after the semester began, I got a call from Henry Hampton to visit his production company, named Blackside, located in the South End of Boston. By the end of that wondrous day, I knew that, in my heart of hearts, what I really wanted to do was to make documentary films, films as great as Henry's Eyes on the Prize. Since Henry didn't use hosts or "presenters" in his documentaries, and since no other black documentary producer did, either, I had no idea how that would ever happen. And so I had to be content with being just another "talking head," just another "expert" being interviewed by an associate producer in her or his office.
All that changed in 1993, when, out of the blue, producers from the BBC asked me to film an episode of their perennial series, The Great Railway Journeys. A film crew; my daughters, 14 and 12; and I traveled through Africa for 3,000 miles on trains, from Great Zimbabwe to Dar es Salaam, and then back to a village where I had lived when I was 19 on a special program back at Yale. It was serious and moving, but it was also fun: Its conceit was a professor of African and African-American studies trying his best to persuade his two children that they were, somehow, "African," too. The Guardian of London called it "National Lampoon Goes to Africa." And it was addictive. I found myself, even during that difficult and arduous train journey, hoping that I would have a chance to make another film.
In 2004, Peter Kunhardt and Dyllan McGee approached me about a project, and that led to a very fruitful partnership, most notably making two sorts of documentaries: films on black history, and a series on genealogy and genetics, called African American Lives, which has evolved into the weekly PBS series Finding Your Roots. In fact, we just completed airing season 2 of Finding Your Roots, and that is my 14th documentary film, something I can scarcely believe.
We made The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross because no one, since 1968, had ever tried to tell the full sweep of African-American history in one documentary series.
Why was that important? As Arthur Schomburg wrote in 1925:
The American Negro must remake his past in order to make his future. Though it is orthodox to think of America as the one country where it is unnecessary to have a past, what is a luxury for the nation as a whole becomes a prime social necessity for the Negro. For him, a group tradition must supply compensation for persecution, and pride of race the antidote for prejudice. History must restore what slavery took away, for it is the social damage of slavery that the present generations must repair and offset.
To do this difficult work of "repairing and offsetting," a teacher needs tools in the classroom, and nothing is as effective, as immediate, as being able to teach through a powerful documentary film. So we set off to do something that no one had done before: to tell the history of people of African descent in this country, not since Jamestown, but the whole sweep of the black presence here, starting 500 years ago, when the first black man—who was not a slave but a conquistador, amazingly enough—set foot in Florida in the first decade of the 16th century, and ending with the re-election of President Barack Obama.
Let me thank the people who deserve the credit for this achievement: my amazingly dynamic, endlessly inventive, and deeply loving partner, Dyllan McGee (more of a sister, or an alter ego, than a partner), and Peter Kunhardt; Rachel Dretzin, our brilliantly creative senior series producer; Asako Gladsjo, our deeply reflective senior story producer; along with the other members of what I think of as our "dream team," including Sabin Streeter, Jamila Wignot, Phil Bertelson, and Beth Hoppe and Bill Gardner at PBS. And I want to thank our funders: the steadfast and courageous Pat Harrison and Jennifer Lawson at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Paula Kerger at PBS, my friends Howard and Abby Milstein, Glenn H. Hutchins, Dr. Georgette Bennett and Dr. Leonard Polonsky, Richard Gilder, Darren Walker at the Ford Foundation, NEH, the Kellogg Foundation, and Bank of America, Coke and McDonald's. And of course, Neil Shapiro and Stephen Segaller, our faithful partners at Channel 13.
Just thinking about the events at Ferguson, Staten Island and the Black Lives Matter campaign, it's clear to see that the great span of black history has never had more relevance than it does right now. Maya Angelou put it best when she said, "History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again."
As my role model, Henry Hampton, put it: "Looking back, it is clear to me that history is the high ground in the battle for self—and without a sense of self, one's freedom is forever in the hands of others … the importance of history to a disenfranchised people," Hampton continued, cannot be overestimated. And this is why we dedicated Many Rivers to Cross in memory of the man who inspired me to make documentary films in the first place, the much beloved and much missed Henry Hampton. The Alfred I. duPont Award-Columbia is, along with the Peabody, the crème de la crème of broadcast-journalism prizes. I cannot adequately tell you how much this means to me, and what a fantasy it is. Thank you for honoring our work with this coveted award.
Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Jan. 20, 2015
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 editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.