The author of 16 books, the Harvard scholar talks about his latest project, the book & PBS series, The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross.
Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Tavis: “The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross” is the latest contribution by Harvard scholar Dr. Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr. to our greater understanding of pivotal events in American history.
In all, over 40 historians contributed to the six-part series, which begins airing tomorrow night right here on these PBS stations. There is also a companion text of the same name. We’ll start our conversation first by taking a look at a clip from “The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross.”
Tavis: I’m going to start in a moment by talking about what happens tomorrow night on PBS when this series premieres. Let me go back, though, if I can, right quick, to what happened this past weekend.
“12 Years a Slave,” a movie that everybody’s talking about, already Oscar buzz on this, you were the historical consultant to the movie “12 Years a Slave.” How’d it do this weekend?
Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr.: It was great. It had I think a $50,000 PSA, it grossed $960,000. Started in arts theaters and Black theaters. Did extraordinarily well, and the producers, as I understand it, are ecstatic.
Tavis: That PSA number he’s talking about, this is inside Hollywood talk. Skip Gates understands this stuff. That is a really good number on limited screens. So the movie “12 Years a Slave” will be in wider release in the coming weeks but did extremely well on opening weekend.
Part of the reason why they put these out in limited screens is because you’ve got to hit the dates to be considered for an Academy Award, and then it will roll out, of course, on bigger screens, but it did extremely well this weekend.
I want to start our conversation by asking about that, because there are so many movies and documentaries and books about the African American experience in America. To what extent – I know we’ll get to President Obama on the last part of this series weeks from now.
But to what extent does his presence in the White House, an African American First Family in the White House, what’s the link between that reality and all of these various films and books and documentaries that are getting airings now?
Gates: I think there’s an indirect link, Tavis, but I think more directly it’s the larger effect of affirmative action. If you think about how affirmative action affected our generation, affirmative action starts basically 1968, 1969, and what we’re seeing is four decades later, people who were able to go to historically white colleges and universities, like I was, and who are now in positions of authority and positions in which they can make things happen, we’re becoming of age.
So you’re seeing this whole group of people who have more authority in certain arenas than any other generation before us in the African American community, more crossover power, and we have the ability to make things happen, and these events are coming together.
I don’t think it’s directly the effect of the president. I think the president is a direct effect of these larger policies of affirmative action.
Tavis: One of those persons that you’re speaking of who now has some authority is a guy named Clarence Thomas, who of course sits on the U.S. Supreme Court as the only African American.
But if Clarence Thomas, if Justice Thomas were here, he’d say the exact opposite, Professor Gates, which is that African Americans have been stigmatized by affirmative action.
Your argument is that it opened up the door to all of this goodness, this enrichment that we’re now being exposed to.
Gates: Absolutely. Where would Clarence Thomas be without affirmative action? He never would have gotten into Yale. I wouldn’t have gotten into Yale. Not that I was not academically qualified, but Yale, Tavis, had a racist quota.
The class of ’66 at Yale had six Black men to graduate. The class that entered with me in 1969 had 96. What was there, a genetic blip in the race that all of a sudden (laughter) 90 smart Black people – they just took off this racist quota. Yale used to have a quota on Roman Catholics, let alone Black people, and I’m sure they did on Jewish people as well.
I think that there were two kinds of beneficiaries of affirmative action: Those of us who benefitted from it and want to stand at the gates and let more people in, and those who benefitted from it and want to stand at the gates and keep other people out. Unfortunately, Justice Thomas, I believe, falls into that latter category.
Tavis: So tell me then what the value is in the era of Obama of our being exposed to all of these various films and documentaries, specifically here on PBS, “The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross.” What’s the value at this point?
Gates: Well, every time there is a racist incident, like the unfortunate murder of Trayvon Martin, politicians, activists, call for a conversation on race. What do they mean? They mean a kind of town meeting, a feel-good session.
You come and you accuse, you confess, you apologize, metaphorically sing “We Shall Overcome” at the end. Everyone goes home, they feel better, and a month later, there’s another murder of an innocent Black boy, there’s racial profiling, or whatever the incident might be.
Where do real conversations about citizenship occur? In our schools. 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 was shaping you to be a citizen of this great republic, but she never said, “Tavis, I’m going to teach you how to be a citizen, or Tavis and your classmates, today is citizenship lesson.” They just did it by demonstration.
That’s where we have to put the conversation about race.
The reason that I wanted to do this series, the first comprehensive treatment of the whole sweep of African American history since Bill Cosby did his in 1968, and which I watched with my parents when I was 17 years old, was to provide the tools through which a teacher could incorporate African American history into the story, the grand narrative, of the founding of America, its settlement, its peopling, and its great prosperity over the last several centuries.
Your statement now, though, Professor Gates, assumes that there are people who want that history to be taught. I could argue in places like Texas and beyond, this ain’t the kind of stuff they want on their curriculum.
Gates: No, you’re absolutely right. In fact, we don’t have to be anecdotal about it. The Southern Poverty Law Center recently published a study just examining how the civil rights movement is taught.
Now you would think that with MLK Day, how many times do you hear “I Have a Dream” in January and February, that the one thing schools could teach safely would be the civil rights movement.
Well, here are the results. Only three states get an A, and only three states get a B. Thirty-five states get an F, including the great state of California. That’s reprehensible.
So the first thing we have to do is provide the tools. So we have a DVD with six hours of impeccably researched history, we have a great companion book, and now we have to lobby the school districts, state legislatures, to put African American history where it belongs – in the classroom.
Not only as a separate course, because most legislatures won’t do that. I’m talking about integrating the story, so that let’s say not only do we learn about George Washington, we learn about his slave, Harry Washington.
Harry ran away from George’s Mount Vernon, fought for the British, and then when the British lost went to Nova Scotia with the free Black community, the former Black patriots.
Then when Nova Scotia didn’t work out, they went to Sierra Leone and settled there. That tells a fuller story of American history and George Washington than simply George Washington chopped down the cherry tree and didn’t tell a lie.
Tavis: I’m trying to understand though why it is – and I’m glad you did this, and viewers will get a chance to see the first of this series tomorrow night here on PBS and for the next six or seven weeks consecutively.
Gates: Six weeks, yeah.
Tavis: Six weeks, every Tuesday, same time, same place. For six weeks you’ll see a different episode of “The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross” brought to us by Professor Gates.
But back to your point earlier of the data brought to us by the Southern Poverty Law Center about what’s not being taught in schools. Help me understand why you feel that this will be or can be.
Gates: Well, the first thing that you have to do is provide a well-researched product, something impeccably done, something that conforms to the highest scholarly standards and the highest standards of production, and we’ve done that.
All I can do is provide that, because my first hat is I’m a teacher. But then I need activists, influential people like you, the Black Congressional Caucus, all those Black state legislatures, organizations like the NAACP and the National Urban League, to join with me and help to demand to lobby for the integration of Black content into the curriculum.
I can’t do that alone. I can make the documentary series. The second has to be a team effort, and we have to recognize that as political important as raising the percentage of Black people in the middle class, or reducing the number of Black men in prison, or reducing the poverty level.
It is of crucial importance, because the only way you can combat racism systematically, I think, is through the classroom. Effortlessly, invisibly, osmotically, so that we’re not only teaching about race and racism in Black History Month, we’re teaching about it every day.
We’re teaching about the content of America as reflecting a Black presence every day, effortlessly, and we have to do that with a new curriculum.
Tavis: I say this in terms of full disclosure. I was going to say it at the end of the program, as I typically do, but when it is relevant. But since Professor Gates mentioned it, this book is published by Smiley Books. That would be my publishing imprint.
We were honored to have been given the opportunity by Professor Gates to publish the companion text, so I’m doing my part. (Laughter)
Gates: You did a great job.
Tavis: I think it – and it’s a beautiful book.
Gates: Thank you.
Tavis: I think the book has been beautifully done by a wonderful team at our imprint that will serve as a companion to what you’re going to start seeing here on PBS tomorrow night.
Gates: I can’t wait to do the next book. (Laughter)
Tavis: Well, I’m looking forward to it, looking forward to it; it’s a beautiful – real piece of work. I want to go now to talking specifically about the six-part series, and without going through too much detail.
Give me some sense of where we begin and where we end and what we’re really going to see tomorrow night in episode one.
Gates: Well, we start in 1513, where no other series has started before. You remember when we took African American history, we always started in 1619, because the first –
Tavis: Jamestown, yeah.
Gates: Jamestown. The first 20 Africans land at a place called Port Comfort, right near Jamestown. We now know, thanks to the work of historians like John Thornton and Linda Heywood at BU, they’re from Angola.
So these brothers and sisters show up from Angola, and everyone starts the story there. But they weren’t the first Africans to come to what is now the United States.
The first African – we even know his name – came in 1513. He was a free Black man, not a slave. His name was Juan Garrido, and he came with Ponce de Leon, a Black conquistador, looking for the fountain of youth, just like the white guys. (Laughter)
Tavis: Everybody wants to be young forever.
Gates: Isn’t that amazing? Then he later goes with Cortez all the way to Baja, California, Mexico, looking for the mythical Black Amazons. He comes back to Mexico City, he files a petition in 1538 to the king of Spain asking for a pension, and he claims – this is how you know he’s a brother – he claims to have invented the growing of wheat. (Laughter)
He goes, “And Your Majesty, I also invented wheat.” So you know he was absolutely a Black man, and we have his portrait. We have a picture of him.
The first slave whose name we know came in 1528. His name was Esteban, and Esteban was on a ship with 600 people, was shipwrecked, Galveston, Texas. Only four survivors. He turns out to be a brilliant linguist.
He becomes a translator. Tavis, they wander all the way to Arizona, New Mexico and back, and then go back again, 15,000 miles. This brother saw more of the continental United States than any other non-Native American before Lewis and Clark.
So we start with this contrast between a free Black man and a Black man who was a slave to show that the Black experience, the story of Black America, was always multivalent, multilayered.
It was always complex. It wasn’t just about slaves or free people or whatever. We move from there to tell the story of Anthony Johnson in Jamestown. He comes about 1525, he gains his freedom in some way; we’re not sure how.
Either he was a slave or an indentured servant. He gets married. He accrues 250 acres and has white indentured servants working for him and a Black man.
We know this because in 1654 the Black man either took him to court or he took the Black man to court, because the Black man said, “I should be treated as an indentured servant like the white servants and get my freedom after seven years.”
Anthony Johnson, the brother, says, “No, you’re my slave for life,” and Anthony Johnson wins. That codifies slavery as a race-based thing in Virginia thereafter. It’s complicated, man.
Tavis: Those are the beginnings, and then you – this is 500 years of history we’re talking about.
Gates: Yeah, all the way to the second inauguration of President Obama.
Tavis: Yeah. Put that in context for me.
Gates: Well, I wanted to show, first of all, that we have been in this country for half a millennium, and that we’ve had lots of ups and lots of downs. It’s the story of travail and suffering, but also great triumph. Even ending with the second inauguration of President Obama is a mixed ending.
You would think it’s a note of triumph on the one hand, right? The Black man wins the White House twice. But a Black man is elected and reelected at the same time when we have 70 percent of live births out of wedlock.
We have the highest male prison rate for African Americans in our history. The percentage of Black children living at or beneath the poverty line is in the mid-30 percents.
Do you know what it was when Dr. King died? Virtually the same. Just slightly higher. So to quote Charles Dickens, it’s the best of times; it’s the worst of times. We did that to show, to deconstruct this idea, this bogus idea, that we’re somehow magically in a post-racial society just because President Obama was elected and reelected. It’s a ridiculous idea.
Tavis: I was asked a question in an interview a couple of weeks ago, a point-blank question. I gave a direct answer to the question that I was asked. Some people then tried to label that as me smashing the president, and the truth of the matter is –
Gates: Somebody accused you of doing that?
Tavis: Yeah, I know.
Gates: Why would they do that, Tavis?
Tavis: Can you imagine that? (Laughter) Can you imagine that?
Gates: Where’s Cornel? (Laughter)
Tavis: Behind that (unintelligible) right there. I was asked a question and I answered it. The question was are African Americans better off five years into the Obama presidency, and the answer, as you and I both know, is no.
You’ve just laid that out. If you look at the data, we are not better. Symbolically, one could argue that we are. Substantively, we are not. So I answered the question and all hell breaks loose about Tavis Smiley smashing the president, and that’s not what it was.
The point is that the data is going to indicate – and I just had Austin Goolsby, the president’s former head of the economic team on my radio show last week. Austin Goolsby on my radio show concurs with this point, sadly.
The data is going to indicate when Obama is out of office after eight years that Black people lost ground in every single leading economic indicator category. Something magical would have to happen for that not to be the case in every single leading economic indicator category.
Gates: You see, I don’t know those data, but let’s presume that it’s true.
Tavis: It is true.
Tavis: But we’ll presume for the sake of this conversation, since you don’t know, I’m telling you that is the case, unless something magical were to happen. But here’s the point. It’s not about demonizing him or casting aspersion on him.
Gates: No, right.
Tavis: It’s to ask this question: After 500 years of history – and let me be clear; we know that’s not all Obama’s fault. This did not start on his watch.
Gates: Of course, right.
Tavis: But I’m getting to a question, which is this: How will the historians, the Skip Gates 50, 100 – you may live forever, as good a shape as you’re in – but 50, 100, 200 years from now, when historians look back on this era, to your point, how are they going to juxtapose that in the era of the first Black president that after being here 500 years we lost ground in all these categories.
Gates: Well, as I said, let’s presume those indices are true. A lot can happen in the next three years, and let’s hope that it does. But given the recalcitrance of the Tea Party, as we just saw –
Tavis: It might not.
Gates: The silent second term motivating the Tea Party is the word “race.” I think the people in the Tea Party are, some are clearly disturbed, ideologically, about big government. But I think subconsciously at least they are totally obsessed with having a Black man in the White House.
Many of these guys would rather see the country go bankrupt than for a Black man to succeed. We’ve got to be clear about that.
Gates: But I would say that it would show the limited effects of an individual to transform large, systemic forces that have a long history, starting with three centuries of slavery, four centuries of slavery, and a century of Jim Crow.
You can’t wave a wand and change all that magically. You just can’t. Which is why I think that Americans need to understand the deleterious historical impact, the lasting impact, of the way our ancestors were treated.
One man, even as brilliant and as charismatic as Barack Obama, can’t come in and erase centuries of systematic, institutional discrimination against our people.
We started by talking about affirmative action. The paradoxical result is that the Black upper middle class has quadrupled, so people like you and I having this conversation, it was impossible to do this four decades ago.
Tavis: Absolutely, yeah.
Gates: You publishing my book, me at Harvard, you with – you’re a one-person media empire. We are enabled by affirmative action. But at the same time, it’s almost as if the system let us in and then shut the door on everybody else.
So that how we can begin to address the problems facing Black America economically – and that’s the signal failure of the civil rights movement. Very few of the leaders in the history of civil rights had an economic analysis.
Because we all thought it was a matter of xenophobia, fear of the Black man, fear of a Black face, fear of a Black body. But Blackness, race, just coded for deeper economic analysis – and I know Cornel agrees with that – and very few people – Herbert Marcuse actually said the principle effect of the civil rights movement is going to be the creation of a new Black upper class, and maybe he was right.
I think that we need more economic-based solutions to the problems afflicting the Black community, and I think that that’s a way to redefine affirmative action. I grew up with poor white people in West Virginia, and I know there’s a culture of poverty.
I know that I’ve seen white people perform exactly the same pathological forms of behavior as Black people do when they’re systematically deprived, whether it’s getting pregnant, doing drugs, dropping out of school, whatever we’re talking about. I think that we should have affirmative action for poor white people too.
Tavis: The question is what is the message, then, for Black people who are watching this series tomorrow night and for the next six weeks? All of America will watch it on PBS, but specifically for African Americans, since we know now that one person can’t wave a magic wand.
We know that we’re still dealing with the impacts and the reverberation of this history, what is the message to us in a contemporary moment, because history is written backwards, but our lives are lived forwards.
Gates: Absolutely. Beautiful way to put it. In fact, I’m going to – I do a quote of the day on TheRoot.com. I’m going to quote you on that, because it’s true.
Tavis: I’m sure I stole it from somebody, but go ahead, yeah. (Laughter)
Gates: I think one of the episodes is called “Making a Way Out of No Way,” and you know that’s from the Black tradition.
Tavis: Old gospel song, yeah.
Gates: We made – our ancestors made a way out of no way. Tavis, they had no reason to believe in the future, no reason to believe in the future, yet they believed in the future.
They deferred gratification; they valued education as if future generations’ lives depended on it, even though they saw no end to slavery. They believed – they didn’t want to go back to Africa.
Very few Black people ever embraced back to Africa movements, and very few actually, a tiny number actually went back to Africa. They said, “We are going to make America live up to the ideals of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States.”
They produced one of the world’s great cultures; they produced individuals who were just as brilliant and made contributions to the world civilization. In fact, they produced a world-class civilization, the African American civilization, in music, in dance, in oratory, in religion, in writing.
It’s one of the great miracles in human civilization, and I think it means that each individual has a responsibility to get out of bed, learn their ABCs, learn your math tables, not use race and racism as an excuse.
Everybody wants to have sex – you don’t have to have a baby when you’re 16. You don’t have to do drugs. I think our Sunday schools should be turned into Black history schools and computer schools on the weekend, just like Hebrew schools for Jewish people, or my Asian friends who send their kids to schools on the weekend to learn Chinese or Korean.
We have to do that. We have to stop making excuses. One of the things that I’m careful to show is the horrendous effects of institutional and structural racism, but in the end, you can’t wait for white man or a Black man to come riding in on a white horse to save you. We have to save ourselves, and that’s the lesson of “The African Americans.”
Tavis: I got 30 seconds here. I agree with what you’ve said about saving ourselves. How, though, given this moment that we live in, do you get these Black people to care about a future that they will never see.
Gates: Well, how did our slave ancestors do it? What made them believe that one day, if they kept on keeping on, that there would be a Tavis Smiley and there would be a Skip Gates?
I don’t know. It’s a miracle, man. It’s one of the most astonishing developments and mysterious developments in human history, that the slaves believed, kept the faith, so that we could be here today.
Tavis: The book is called “The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross.” That is the book. It is the companion text to a wonderful six-part series that starts tomorrow night here on these PBS stations and will be seen every Tuesday night, same time, for six consecutive weeks, brought to us by the one and only Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr. out of Harvard.
You’ll want to see it starting tomorrow night here on PBS. Skip, as always, thanks for some wonderful work, and it’s a blessing to have you on this program.
Gates: Thank you, and keep on doing exactly what you’re doing, Tavis.
Tavis: I thank you, and as always, Skip said it, but I say it every night – thanks for watching, and keep the faith.
“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.
[Walmart sponsor ad.]
“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.