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‘Many Rivers to Cross’ brings African-American history up to current day

November 26, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
In "Many Rivers to Cross," Henry Louis Gates Jr. recounts 500 years of African-American history in a six-part series for PBS. Gwen Ifill sits down with Gates, a Harvard University professor, to discuss the journey of black Americans who created hope and persistence in the face of brutal discrimination.
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GWEN IFILL: African-American stories have been told in fits and starts over the years, but seldom all in one place.

In “The African-Americans: Many Rivers to Cross,” Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. offers an exhaustive, but not exhausting, journey through five centuries. The six-part series, which covers everything from slavery to “Soul Train,” concludes its run tonight on PBS.

Part of the finale deals with the story of the Black Panthers, who turned to violence after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968.

NARRATOR: Across the country, some African-Americans who had patiently withstood injustice for decades now set their cities on fire in a spontaneous outpouring of despair and anger.

But, in Oakland, Calif., people had somewhere else to turn. The Black Panther Party, a militant group started in 1966 to defend the city’s black community.

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KATHLEEN NEAL CLEAVER, former Black Panther: People jammed the Black Panther offices, saying: “We want guns. We want guns. We have to do something about this.”

NARRATOR: By April 1968, the Panthers had gone from promoting self-defense to advocating revolutionary change.

GWEN IFILL: Welcome, Professor Gates.

So it’s not Black History Month and it’s not the anniversary of the March on Washington, so why are we telling these stories again?

HENRY LOUIS GATES JR., “The African-Americans: Many Rivers to Cross”: Five hundred years of the contributions, achievements and sacrifices of 42 million — of the ancestors of 42 million Americans, that’s not important?

Do you know that the first person of African descent landed in what is now North America in 1513? And we even know his name. His name was Juan Garrido. He wasn’t a slave. He was free. And he came with Ponce de Leon.

He was a black conquistador, and he was looking for the Fountain of Youth, just like the white guys.

(LAUGHTER)

HENRY LOUIS GATES JR.: And he’s been lost to history, except for a few specialists.

And so we start with Juan Garrido, and we go 500 years, half-a-millennium to the second election and the second inauguration of the first black president, Barack Obama.

GWEN IFILL: Which is the story you will be telling Tuesday night.

But, tell me, how do you decide? Of all of those stories in those 500 years to tell, how do you decide which ones to tell?

HENRY LOUIS GATES JR.: We chose things that were emblematic of larger phenomenon.

You could not tell the story of every runaway slave, so you pick Harriet Tubman. You can’t do every riot, so in this episode, we do the L.A. riots. This story of Solomon Northup, which has been — so many Americans have seen in “12 Years a Slave.”

GWEN IFILL: Yes.

HENRY LOUIS GATES JR.: We picked Terrence Stevens, a black man who was framed for drug possession on a Greyhound bus, has M.S., in a wheelchair, and served in prison for 11 years before he was pardoned.

GWEN IFILL: But there’s a theme that runs throughout all six parts of this.

And that is that African-Americans, no matter how they came to this country, in the worst possible way, managed to create something out of nothing, whether it was culturally, historically, whether it was food, somehow created something out of nothing.

HENRY LOUIS GATES JR.: Yes, I wanted to achieve two effects, one, to show the effects of black agency, the fact that our people had a will to survive.

We call one episode “Making a Way Out of No Way,” which you know is fundamental to the black tradition, that expression. And our ancestors deferred gratification. They had no idea that slavery would actually end. But they functioned as if it would. They could not imagine that you would be the co-host of a national news program…

GWEN IFILL: I couldn’t imagine it either, so that’s OK.

HENRY LOUIS GATES JR.: … interviewing me, a professor at Harvard University who’s executive producer of a six-hour series on African-American history, that our people would ever get to that point.

Yet they functioned as — in such a way as to make it possible. I wanted to create the effect of overhearing the conversation about the black experience among black people, in the special way that when you go to get your hair done or you go to a barbershop or you’re in church, and people aren’t worried about public perceptions of what they will say. They’re just their cultural selves, as I think of it.

And I think that’s what we did. And we came up with 70 stories. And they tell the tale.

GWEN IFILL: How do you fill a gap that isn’t being filled in the schools? Is that what this is about as well?

HENRY LOUIS GATES JR.: Oh, absolutely.

The — I have received thousands of e-mails over the last five weeks, but the ones I treasure most are from either teachers or students, and teachers saying, already, I’m using it to teach, say, slavery or Reconstruction or the creation of Jim Crow or the Harlem Renaissance or the Great Migration.

And why is it important? It’s important because our schools shape who we are as citizens. Think about the things you learned in first grade, my country ’tis of thee, I pledge allegiance to the flag, “America the Beautiful.” Your teacher doesn’t say, today is citizen lesson. I’m going to teach you how to be a citizen. They implicitly teach you how to be a citizen.

Every time there’s a racial incident in this country, our leaders call for a town hall meeting, a conversation about race. No one has a conversation about citizenship. It happens implicitly, invisibly everyday. That’s where the real conversation about race has to happen, kindergarten, first grade, every day. Every day has to be Black History Month, in the sense that our story, this narrative has to be integrated inextricably in the story of America. And that’s what we have provided in the series.

GWEN IFILL: In the year when we have seen “The Butler” with this great critical success and “12 Years a Slave” with its great commercial success, both of them, there are those who could say that we’re in the middle of another big black cultural renaissance of story — historical storytelling.

HENRY LOUIS GATES JR.: I was around when “New Jack City” and “She’s Gotta Have It” and “Do the Right Thing”…

GWEN IFILL: Spike Lee’s big moments.

HENRY LOUIS GATES JR.: Yes. They all came out at the same time, and everybody was talking about a renaissance of black film about 1990, 1991.

I think it’s the second-generation effect of affirmative action. One of the themes of our final episode is that, to quote Dickens, it’s the best of times, it’s the worst of times for our people. And what do we mean by that? The black upper-middle class has quadrupled since that terrible day in 1968 when Dr. King was killed because of affirmative action.

At the same time, the percentage of black children living at or beneath the poverty line is almost identical to what it was the day Dr. King was killed.

GWEN IFILL: So there’s this huge wealth gap, even though we have a black president and we’re supposed to be past all of this.

HENRY LOUIS GATES JR.: Yes. That’s right.

And for those of us who were able to take advantage of affirmative action and then replicate ourselves over the years, we were able to take advantage of more access to the means of production than any other generation of black people before us.

GWEN IFILL: Including telling our own stories.

HENRY LOUIS GATES JR.: Including telling our own stories.

And, also, we have a huge market, a huge group of black people who can afford to go to movie theaters, buy a ticket, TiVo, buy DVDs. And you see all these forces coming together. So I think that we are in a kind of renaissance, but it’s the result, paradoxically, or curiously enough, of the civil rights movement and affirmative action. We’re just seeing its effect 40 years later.

GWEN IFILL: The story is “The African-Americans: Many Rivers to Cross.” The last episode airs tonight, but you can get it on DVD and online, of course.

And the spiritual leader behind it all is Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr.

Thank you for joining us.

HENRY LOUIS GATES JR.: Thank you.