What I Learned From 'Many Rivers to Cross'

Screenshot of Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s Many Rivers to Cross PBS series

The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross provides a rare and provocative view of American colonists as the architects of slavery and racism, Jamelle Bouie writes at the Daily Beast. It also takes a hard look at Africans who sold other Africans into slavery. 

Even if you accept that race is a social construct, separated from biology, it's difficult to deal with it as a creation. Humans are tribal, and it feels natural to think that humanity has always been eager to categorize on the basis of skin color.

If there's anything Henry Louis "Skip" Gates, Jr., accomplishes with "The Black Atlantic," the first episode of The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross—a new documentary mini-series that begins on PBS Tuesday at 8 p.m. ET—it's to show that this view is an illusion. That is, in addition to inaugurating a broad history of black people—"the full 500 years of American history," he says—the beginning of the series also gives viewers a valuable crash course in the history of race as an idea that was built

As most Americans understand it, Africans were enslaved because they were black—English traders saw them as inferior, and made them slaves as a result. The true history is more complicated. As Gates points out with a fascinating detour to Sierra Leone—where he meets with the descendants of African slave traders—as many as 90 percent of African slaves were sold by other Africans. Slavery, after all, isn't an unusual feature of human societies. And in Africa—like much of the world—it was based on ethnic ties and geopolitics. If you found yourself on the losing side of a tribal war, odds are good you would be sold into captivity. "Black Africans," says Gates, "didn't necessarily feel the bonds of skin color any more than white Europeans did. "That is, the color of their skin didn't confer any particular solidarity or imply any shared experience."


Read Jamelle Bouie's entire piece at the Daily Beast.

The Root aims to foster and advance conversations about issues relevant to the black Diaspora by presenting a variety of opinions from all perspectives, whether or not those opinions are shared by our editorial staff.

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