(The Root) — "The story of the African-American people is the story of the settlement and growth of America itself, a universal tale that all people should experience," says Henry Louis Gates Jr., the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African-American Research at Harvard University.
Gates, who is also The Root's editor-in-chief, is now offering that experience in the form of a six-part series he's written and directed for PBS. The first episode of African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross With Henry Louis Gates, Jr. airs Tuesday night.
The series begins with the origins of slavery in Africa and covers five centuries of historic events right up to the present by highlighting 70 stories developed in collaboration with 40 historians. As the series host, professor Gates travels throughout the United States, leading viewers on a journey through African-American history. He visits key historical sites, debates with some of America's top historians and interviews eyewitnesses.
Beyond providing a comprehensive black-history curriculum, the series is designed to make one thing clear: "There's no America without African Americans," says Gates.
He spoke to The Root about the program's surprises and lessons and how he hopes it will be received.
The Root: What about the series will be most surprising to viewers?
Henry Louis Gates Jr.: I think the most surprising thing to many viewers will be that [the first] African Americans did not arrive in 1619, when … 20 Africans arrived at Point Comfort, Virginia, and were transported to Jamestown. Rather, it was a century before that, in Florida, when the first black man whose name we actually knew arrived, in 1513.
Juan Garrido was a free black man, not a slave. He was a conquistador, and like the others, he was looking for the fountain of youth. He went to Baja California, Mexico, looking for the black Amazons. We even have a petition he filed to [the] king of Spain asking for a pension. He claims he was the first person ever to sow wheat in the New World. [In the series] we trace the arc of black history from Juan Garrido's riveting story to, half a millennium later, another black man who happens to be president of the United States.
Another big surprise is the role of Africans in slave trade. I've written about it before and it upsets people, but it's the truth. According to historians Linda Heywood and John Thornton, 90 percent of Africans shipped across the Atlantic were captured by other Africans.
TR: PBS's description of the series says the "African-American community … has never been a uniform entity, and that its members have been actively debating their differences from their first days in this country." Why is it important to communicate that?
HLG: As a professor I'm surrounded by young African Americans every day, and sometimes they talk wistfully about the 1960s: "Oh, professor Gates, the good old days were when people were united." I bust out laughing because there's always been left, right and center. There's always been people who analyzed the concept of racism, and people who didn't — I would think that those kind of debates extended to the first people who arrived in Jamestown.
There are 42 million African Americans, there are 34.8 million Canadians — but nobody in their right mind would talk about the Canadian community or the leader of Canadian people. I want all of our people to know that however idiosyncratically black they are, they're still black.
TR: What makes the series unique?
HLG: This isn't the story of just George Washington; we tell it through his slave Harry Washington. It's not just Lincoln and the civil war, but the story of 500,000 people who left their masters and joined the Union Army. It's not just American Bandstand, it's Soul Train and how black culture became the lingua franca of American pop culture.
Just as effective in the series is the showing of black agency and self-determination. About 45 ethnic groups were represented in slave trade, and they came here with nothing, but they created one of the world's great civilizations, and out of it came African-American culture.
TR: What are the goals of the series?
HLG: First, to show that black culture is inextricably intertwined with American culture. There's no America without African Americans.
Second, to provide a tool that teachers can use to enact the conversation about race every day in the classroom. Every day's gotta be Black History Month. Just like with citizenship, for example: A teacher doesn't say, "Today I'm going to teach you how to be a citizen." It's taught every day.
Comparably, when people hear the story of Ponce de León, they need to hear Juan Garrido. When they hear about George Washington, they need to know that he was the biggest slaveholder, and several of his slaves ran away and joined the enemy fighting him. They need to know that Harry Washington ended up in Sierra Leone via Nova Scotia. They need to know about Ella Baker, who created the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and that one of the first instructors of freedmen at Hampton, Virginia, was Mary Peake.
We tell 70 stories in the six-hour series. They were arrived at in collaboration with a team of historians. Each had to be exemplary of larger trends or themes; each had to have a greater meaning. These stories are important.
African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross With Henry Louis Gates, Jr. premieres on Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2013, at 8 p.m. ET on PBS and airs six consecutive Tuesdays through Nov. 26, 2013. Check local listings.
Jenée Desmond-Harris is The Root's staff writer and White House correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.