Can something as tragic and immoral as slavery become, if not less tragic, then noble, even righteous, in the telling? It can and it does in the capable hands of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., whose brilliant and compelling new six-part series for PBS called "The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross" premieres Oct. 22 (check local listings).
Gates, whose previous series, "African American Lives," chronicled the heritage of some famous and notable African Americans, takes us on a new journey that begins 500 years ago. While some of the history is familiar, Gates re-tells it in a way that will sound new to many people, especially the young. What I admire most about Gates' approach in this series and the previous one is that he is not a polemicist. He doesn't dwell on blame so much as he conveys documented history, leaving it to viewers to draw their own conclusions.
What many will find shocking is that the first slave traders were Africans who, Gates says, based their prejudices on "ethnic differences" while using "brute power." In episode one, Gates takes us to Sierra Leone where "300,000 Africans were taken." It was only the beginning.
When Europeans entered the slave trade, they deprived their slaves of last names, making family roots difficult to trace, making self-identity all but impossible. Slaves were considered chattel, not people; a commodity, no more significant than a mule, a plow, a wagon or a sack of cottonseed. As such, nothing but the most basic of identifiers was necessary.
One woman in the series, "Priscilla," had a family tree, chiefly because her "master," John Ball, who owned several plantations in South Carolina, kept meticulous records. Priscilla was taken from Sierra Leone at age 10 and purchased by John Ball of Charleston. A descendant, Edward Ball, shows Gates those records. Gates interviews a descendant of Priscilla. It is a rarity, he notes, for African Americans today to trace their ancestry in an unbroken line back to Africa.
At least two character qualities come through in this series: determination and hope. African slaves and their descendants never lost their vision that freedom and opportunity were possible, if not for them, then for those who came after them. Lynchings in the South occurred almost daily. During the Civil War, Confederate soldiers were permitted to hunt and kill any runaway slave who joined the Union Army. Despite this, slaves never lost hope of a better future.
"Hope brought these people through," says Gates. "Love and family would be their brick and mortar."
What has happened to that courage and motivation?
This film series should be required viewing for every African American, especially students. For those who are trapped in cycles of poverty, out-of-wedlock births and absentee fathers, incarceration and violence, someone should ask them: Do you think your ancestors would be proud of you? Did they sacrifice in order for you to sell drugs and behave irresponsibly? Did they die in bondage so that you could squander the freedom you enjoy by becoming slaves to other things?
Just as the Great Wall of China was built with forced labor, so was much of America, including the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. "America probably would not have a culture if it weren't for black people," says one interviewee.
"The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross" will serve as an eye-opener for many of us. It should also send the message that despite any leftover discrimination from the past, African Americans face nothing today that approaches what their ancestors endured. If they overcame, then African Americans today can too.