The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, a six-part, six-hour television event, draws to a close at 8 p.m. ET Tuesday on PBS. When we began our journey on Oct. 22, we set a goal of presenting 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. This evening we meet that goal with an exploration of the past 40 years of black history—what, in the companion book to the series, we title “From Black Power to the White House: 1968-2013.”
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. 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.
By highlighting the complex internal debates and divisions within the black experience historically, The African Americans has sought 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 have seen (and will see this evening), 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.
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 have stressed 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 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, it 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 fates 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.
Remember to tune in Tuesday at 8 p.m. ET for the final episode of professor Gates’ new PBS series, The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross: “A More Perfect Union (1968-2013).” To check local listings, and to learn more about the series, visit pbs.org/wnet/african-americans-many-rivers-to-cross. To order the entire series on DVD, or to purchase the companion book, visit shoppbs.org.
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.