Harvard Scholar Disorderly

Author, Harvard scholar, social critic and filmmaker, Henry Louis Gates has a new documentary hitting the PBS airwaves on Oct. 22.  Gates said his goal in making “The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross” was to provide a comprehensive story of African Americans dating from before the arrival of slaves to the present day.

Gates wrote and hosts the series, which he says will trace the evolution of African Americans through five centuries and leading to the election of Barack Obama as president.

Gates said the story is not only about African Americans, “but of America.”

The first part of the series, “The Black Atlantic,” begins before the first documented “20-and-odd” slaves arrived at Jamestown, Va. “The first African American to arrive on these shores was a conquistador.”

In a recent interview with Salon, Gates discussed the importance of the PBS documentary and his views on race relations:

I’m kind of curious the degree to which you think we as a nation — especially students — are at risk of forgetting slavery. I wonder if this series has to exist and things like it have to exist to remind people?

I think of this as a black history series for your generation. A generation that didn’t see “Roots” when it was being shown every night creating a national phenomenon. A very cosmopolitan generation, technologically savvy. Less concerned about race as an individual basis than any generation before it. And more integrated – socially integrated, whether it’s images on television or as the definition of American popular culture adds the African-American element as its lingua franca.

But on the other hand, schools are failing in terms of teaching the black experience. We don’t have to be anecdotal about these things. The Southern Poverty Law Center recently issued a report – and you can Google this – on how well the civil rights movement, just the civil rights movement – you’d think with Martin Luther King Day and February as Black History Month, how many times do you hear “I have a dream” in the month of January and February? A million times – you’d think that the one thing that the schools would be doing right, and covering adequately, would be the civil rights movement, right?

Wrong. Only three states received an “A”: Alabama, Florida and New York. And only three even received a “B”: Georgia, Illinois and South Carolina. For adequate coverage of the civil rights movement. Thirty-five states received an “F,” including the great state of California. You can imagine if they did a similar survey of slavery, the results would be even worse. Part of the reason for that is that I don’t think teachers have had, I know they don’t have one DVD of a series that they can use for their multimedia element. And that’s because no one has tried to do a comprehensive survey of African-American history since 1968, since Bill Cosby did “Black History: Lost, Stolen or Strayed,” which I watched with my parents in Piedmont, W.Va., when I was 17 years old. And that’s what inspired me to go to Yale and take a black history course, in fact, the following year.

Teachers need tools to integrate the content about the black experience. And this series is the only one crazy enough to do what turned out to be 500 years of African-American history. Starting, as you saw, with Juan Gurito, first black man to set foot on what is now Florida in 1513 with Ponce De Leon looking for the fountain of youth. All the way to Obama’s, President Obama’s second inauguration. Heretofore, teachers would have to use “Eyes on the Prize,” which is on the civil rights era, and “Slavery in America,” and “Freedom Riders” by Stanley Nelson, and something on the Harlem Renaissance. So what I decided to do was tell the story in one series using salient stories – 70 stories over the six episodes, which were exemplary of the whole larger experience. So I worked for seven years on the series, and we gained 30 or 40 stories. When we started, we had a list of the indispensable, canonical stories that any series would have to tell. [laughs] And so we spent years whittling down the stories to be the essential ones, and that’s what we came up with.

Does it drive you crazy when people refer to ours as a post-racial society?

It drives me nuts! I can’t even imagine what it means. I don’t even want to be in a post-racial society. You know, I’m a professor of African studies and African-American studies, and I do very popular PBS television shows, in terms of excavating people’s roots …

What’s your heritage, by the way? Your ancestral heritage? You’re Italian?


And it’s very important. It was very important to Mario Batali when I introduced him to excavated ancestors of hundreds of years. It’s crucial. I don’t want there to be a time when we’re colorless. I just don’t want your Italian heritage and my African heritage and Irish heritage, in my case, to be used to limit your possibilities or mine to limit my possibilities. When you could wear your ancestry, your sexual preference, your gender orientation, your religion, your color, what have you – you can wear it without penalty. And that’s what, that’s what situation we haven’t achieved in this country. It still matters that you are black or gay or a woman or Jewish, and I’m sure Italian, in some contexts. In terms of the presidency, it can be gotten rid of by waving a wand, or even by electing an Italian president, a Jewish president or a black president.

“Many Rivers to Cross,” begins airing on Oct.22nd.

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