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PBS series retells the African-American story

By Felicia R. Lee
New York Times

The African Americans: Many

Rivers to Cross - With

Henry Louis Gates Jr.

8:30 p.m. Tuesday, PBS

Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s six-part series, “The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross,” beginning Tuesday on PBS, aims to chronicle 500 years of black history.

The program starts with Juan Garrido, a free black man whose 1513 expedition with Spanish explorers in Florida made him the first known African to arrive in what is now the United States, and ends with Barack Obama in the White House in 2013, a time of complexity and contradictions for black Americans. In between, Gates, director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard, draws on the latest scholarship to put flesh on characters like the resilient South Carolina slave girl Priscilla as well as her descendants.

“I first had the idea when I was 17 years old,” said Gates, an executive producer, writer and host of the series. “I was at home in Piedmont, W.Va., watching television on our little black-and-white RCA Victor with my parents and Bill Cosby’s documentary ‘Black History: Lost, Stolen or Strayed,’ came on and I was riveted.”

Like Cosby’s program, broadcast in 1968, “The African Americans” lands on TV in a pivotal year, when the country’s racial past has been pushed forward in politics and culture. The confluence of events includes the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the death of Trayvon Martin, and Supreme Court decisions on affirmative action and voting rights.

At the same time, he said, “there is a whole generation, a new generation; they’re very cosmopolitan, multiracial and ahistorical. They haven’t seen ‘Roots’ and they haven’t seen ‘Eyes on the Prize,’ ” the 1987 documentary about the civil rights movement.

Gates began this project, which cost about $8 million, by putting a question to the historians: If you had six hours to tell 500 years of African-American history, what periods and stories would you include? After amassing 500 stories, Gates and his creative team winnowed them down to 11 or 12 an episode.

“It is not just about the English and Africans at Jamestown, but the Spanish in the Southwest and at St. Augustine, the French in the Lower Mississippi Valley, the Dutch in New York,” said Ira Berlin, a professor at the University of Maryland and one of the historians consulted for the series. “It’s a whole new cast of characters.”

“We shape citizens through our schools, and it’s done invisibly,” Gates said. Lessons about the Pilgrims, George Washington and others “are designed to mold a certain attitude that makes you an American citizen,” he said. “Well, what’s been left out historically is us: the contributions of African-Americans.”

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