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A journey through 500 years of African American history

By Leslie Asako Gladsjo

This fall, my colleagues and I completed work on Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s documentary series The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, which began airing on national PBS in October. In six one-hour episodes, the series traces the history of the African American people, from the 16th century—when Juan Garrido, a free black man, arrived on these shores with Hernando Cortes, searching for gold—to today, when our nation has re-elected its first black president, yet still struggles with staggering racial disparities in education, poverty and incarceration rates.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. Courtesdy of Wikimedia Commons
Henry Louis Gates Jr. Photo by Jon Irons, Creative Commons License via Wikimedia Commons.

At first, the task of winnowing five hundred years of African American history down to six hours of television seemed like an insoluble conundrum. How could one documentary series possibly cover this vast sweep of history?

The premise advanced by Gates, the series’ creator, executive producer and host, was deceptively simple: to tell this history from an African American perspective, depicting the agency and unfathomable resilience of a people brought here against their will—who ended up defining this country, its society and its culture, against often insurmountable odds.

We began by seeking the counsel of our advisory board—a host of the field’s most eminent historians and scholars. With their guidance, we sifted through endless lists of stories, each of which seemed more essential than the last. The scholars’ views as to which stories and individuals deserved priority were often at odds with one another. As television producers, we relish probing conflicting ideas, but we needed to find a path through the jungle of scholarly debate. Fortunately, the guiding light came from the stories themselves.

As we waded through five centuries of history, we were constantly struck by how relevant many of the stories still felt, and how powerfully they resonated with what we read about in the news every day. The deeper we delved into our story research, the more we were reminded of William Faulkner’s oft-quoted words: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

While exploring the well-known biography of Harriet Tubman, for instance, we simultaneously discovered the remarkable story of Terrence Stevens, a Harlem resident unjustly sent to prison in 1992, at the height of the War on Drugs. After serving almost a decade in unbearable conditions (Stevens suffers from muscular dystrophy, and received no specialized care during most of his time in prison), he emerged with a fierce determination to help children who had lost their parents to incarceration. His efforts to dismantle the cradle-to-prison pipeline, one individual at a time, recall Tubman’s courageous forays to rescue individuals from slavery in the 1850s.  The stubborn efforts of both Tubman and Stevens evoke W. E. B. Du Bois’ still-potent admonition: “There is in this world no such force as the force of a person determined to rise.”

Historical parallels cropped up throughout our work on the series. While studying the disappointing fate of black elected officials at the end of Reconstruction, day by day we observed the “birthers” and opponents of “Obamacare” acting out scripts that could have been written in the 1880s—whether or not they realized it consciously. (We were deep into production on the first episodes before we knew whether our series might end with the story of a one-term black president.)

Street rally in New York City, October 11, 1955, under joint sponsorship of NAACP and District 65, Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Workers Union in protest of slaying of Emmett Till. Public domain via Library of Congress.
Street rally in New York City, October 11, 1955, under joint sponsorship of NAACP and District 65, Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Workers Union in protest of slaying of Emmett Till. Public domain via Library of Congress.

And as we considered whether to include the story of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old Chicago boy tragically killed in Mississippi in 1955, we followed the trial of George Zimmerman, who had fatally shot another unarmed black teenager, Trayvon Martin, over half a century later in Florida. When Zimmerman—just like Till’s murderers—was ultimately acquitted, it felt as though time had stood still. Except that, in 2013, our African American president acknowledged that Trayvon “could have been me, 35 years ago.”

Some of the most iconic stories, such as John Lewis’ heroic march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama on “Bloody Sunday” in 1965, took on the urgency of current events. While Selma paved the way for the passage of the Voting Rights Act, that same Act was being gutted before our eyes, in real time, as we scripted and filmed that story for the series. The controversial rise and rapid fall of affirmative action provided another fast-moving target.

Resistance, disappointment and despair were not the only themes that resonated across the centuries. Just as slaves created African American music, cuisine and culture amid the dehumanizing conditions in which they were forced to live, we traced how youth in the devastated South Bronx of the 1970s and 80s improvised a new popular culture—hip hop—out of nothing, that went on to conquer the world. As hip hop visionary Chuck D, founder and front man of the legendary group Public Enemy, said in his interview for our series, “Out of the ashes, rose the phoenix of hip hop.” And that phoenix is still thriving in 2013.

As we wrapped up the long process of story selection for all six episodes, we came to realize that our historical research actually helped us to elucidate the present—for ourselves, and now hopefully for our television viewers as well.  The response to the series so far, in social media, the press and by word of mouth, seems to affirm that others hear the same echoes.

If it is true that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it, perhaps this journey will encourage people to remind themselves of what does, and does not, bear repeating. Working on The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross has been a fascinating and inspiring voyage through the past.  But perhaps the most exciting revelation has been that the story isn’t over: this history is still being made, every day.

Leslie Asako Gladsjo, a New York-based documentary filmmaker, served as senior story producer of The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross and also directed the final episode, A More Perfect Union, which covers the era from 1968 to 2013. She has worked with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. on four previous series for PBS, including Finding Your Roots (2012), Faces of America (2010) and African American Lives 1 and 2 (2008 and 2006). Before that, Gladsjo was based in Paris, where she made documentaries on social and cultural topics for European broadcasters including Arte, France 2, France 5, BBC and others.

The Oxford African American Studies Center combines the authority of carefully edited reference works with sophisticated technology to create the most comprehensive collection of scholarship available online to focus on the lives and events which have shaped African American and African history and culture.

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