The Declaration of Independence, I think, is one of the most remarkable documents in the world... 'Inalienable rights'... 'Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness'...'We hold these truths to be self-evident'...[But] it didn't apply to black folks. And the man who wrote those words, Thomas Jefferson, kept slaves, and he understood the inconsistency of all this because he also wrote sometime later to a friend: 'If there is a just God, we are going to pay for this.'
--General Colin Powell, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and featured in Africans in America
How did America build a new nation based on principles of liberty and equality while justifying the existence of slavery? Did American slavery and American freedom have to exist side by side in the nation? How has this history shaped current views about race? Africans in America: America's Journey through Slavery, takes on these tough questions in a four-part documentary series which debuted in October, 1998 on PBS.
As the United States continues to struggle with issues of race and equality in modern society, this landmark television event examines the historical roots of some of today's most disturbing social problems. Africans in America executive producer Orlando Bagwell believes it's important to look back and learn from the past. "When we realize that we've spent more time as a people with slavery than without it, we can begin to see it as a centerpiece of our national identity," says Bagwell. "My hope is that Africans in America offers an opportunity for open discussion of issues that Americans have not been comfortable talking about. If we recognize our shared history--then we're on the road to reconciling racial divisiveness."
Narrated by actress Angela Bassett (How Stella Got Her Groove Back,Waiting to Exhale, What's Love Got to Do with It?), Africans in America: America's Journey through Slavery also features the voices of Andre Braugher, Avery Brooks, William Hurt, Brent Jennings, and Carl Lumbly, among others.
Filmed on location across twelve states and three continents, Africans in America is the first documentary series to examine fully the history of slavery in America. The programs use a combination of vivid first-person narratives, compelling interviews with historians and descendents, rich music, and cutting-edge scholarship. From the nation's early days as an English settlement to the start of the Civil War, each ninety-minute episode focuses on a different chapter in the historic struggle to define freedom.
The series begins with The Terrible Transformation, the first chapter in the tragic story of slavery in America. The series' premiere program challenges popular misconceptions about the origins of slavery in America. Racial slavery did not arrive full-blown with the first Africans to set foot on Virginia soil in the early seventeenth century. It evolved over several decades, one law at a time, to become the institution with which we are now most familiar. "Slavery and freedom existed side by side in this country," says Cornell University historian Margaret Washington. "The issue is: Did it always have to be that way? And the early history of America indicates that it probably did not."
But by the episode's end, the transformation to a system of racial slavery is complete. On the eve of the American Revolution slavery was legal in each of the thirteen colonies -- flourishing not just in the South but the North as well.
The second program in the series, Revolution, examines how the colonies' struggle for sovereignty called into question the institution of American slavery. The film tells the story of the paradox at the heart of the nation's creation through the lives of two individuals: a fourth generation Virginian named George Washington, and an African captured and brought to America as a slave, named Venture Smith. Revolution shows the two men struggling in very different ways to become American.
Through inheritance and marriage, George Washington became one of Virginia's wealthiest planters before serving as leader of the Continental Army, and the nation's first president. As General, he reluctantly agreed to raise a regiment of slaves -- who were promised freedom at war's end -- and free blacks. Five thousand blacks soldiers served alongside whites to gain American independence from the crown. But as Revolution reveals, few slaves who fought actually received their freedom.
Venture Smith would choose a different route to freedom. Twenty-eight years after being brought to American shores as a slave, he purchased his freedom from his master and later bought his entire family out of slavery. By war's end Venture Smith was a free man, but the fate of the more than 800,000 African Americans who remained in slavery had been set when the Constitutional Convention presided over by George Washington ratified a Constitution which codified slavery. Owning slaves would be part of the American freedom.
The series' third program, Brotherly Love, examines the first forty years of the new nation through events in the capital of Philadelphia. There the promise of liberty became real for some of the city's citizens and fleeting for others. As the nation moved to solidify its commitment to slavery, free and enslaved black Americans inspired by the principles of the American Revolution began organizing--building churches, forming improvement societies, and petitioning the government for the repeal of slave laws. "Blacks claim out of the American Revolution their own kind of a Declaration of Independence," says David Blight, historian at Amherst College. "They refuse to let America say that the Declaration of Independence only applies to white people. It's clear that they saw themselves as vessels of the legacy of this revolution."
An anti-slavery movement of whites and blacks was being born, but the nation's westward expansion, a booming Southern economy, and the invention of the cotton gin, all boded ill for quick abolition. Brotherly Love also reveals that this era marked the beginning of attempts to apply principles of science to the study of race, giving birth to scientific racism. "As a nation that saw itself built on the principles of freedom, we had to tell ourselves that there was something about the slave that justified slavery," notes James Horton, historian at George Washington University. "It is the justification of slavery that we are still trying to deal with."
Africans in America's final program, Judgment Day, focuses on the final years before the Civil War and the eventual, bloody end to the institution of slavery. As the nation expanded westward and thousands of slaves from the South were marched into the new territories, American citizens were forced to decide whether the nation would be slave or free. Judgment Day examines how abolitionists struggled for an American future built on freedom for all. Says historian Eric Foner of Columbia University, "Can we exist as a multi-racial society? Can this be a society of equality between people of different backgrounds, different colors, different races? Those questions are still not really answered."
As the final program draws to a close, the judgment day that Thomas Jefferson so presciently spoke of looms large on the horizon. When the Civil War ended, the Constitution was amended to guarantee full and equal citizenship to all Americans. It took more than two centuries and the bloodiest war the nation had ever known, but America was finally free, and slavery was dead.
Africans in America: America's Journey through Slavery is produced for PBS by WGBH Boston.
Major funding for Africans in America is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities. National sponsorship is provided by Bankers Trust and the Fannie Mae Foundation. Additional funding is provided by the Ford Foundation, The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, The Rockefeller Foundation, Stratford Foundation, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and public television viewers.
Africans in America is closed captioned for deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers by The Caption Center at WGBH.
The executive producer is Orlando Bagwell.
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