In October 2013, nearly 11 million viewers across America tuned in to watch Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s, latest six-part documentary series, “The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross” on PBS. Now available on DVD, “The African Americans” covers 500 years of the history of Blacks in America, up to the present day. Dr. Gates traveled across Africa and America to tell the stories of Africans and African Americans—stories that are inextricably woven into the fabric of American history, and stories he hopes will be taught in schools across the country all year-round.
After Dr. Gates received word that both “The African Americans” series and accompanying text book were nominated for NAACP Image Awards, and in between production on the second season of another of his popular PBS series, “Finding Your Roots,” EBONY.com caught up with the acclaimed historian to hear his vision for American education.
EBONY: As a prominent educator and torchbearer for Black history, how are you hoping your latest PBS series will impact the way children learn American history?
HENRY LOUIS GATES, JR.: My goal is, henceforth, whenever anyone hears about American history, they will see the Black presence as part and parcel of that and not something separate, not something relegated to the cold, dark month of February but something integral. Our people were not an add-on, a footnote, something relegated to the margins. Our people were here; we “came before Columbus,” a hundred years before the Mayflower, as we tell in the first episode, that the first Black person arrived in 1513 with Ponce de Leon– and he was free. So the complexity of the founding of America, its settlement and its march to greatness has been informed by and inextricably intertwined with the contributions, sacrifices, triumphs and failures of the African American people. We are as American as any other element in American history. That is my principal motivation.
EBONY: Black History Month is upon us. While it will be slow-going to see your vision of Black history taught as American history throughout the year, what do you hope teachers will do this month to educate their students on the inescapable contributions of Blacks in America?
HLG: I think now with this DVD coming out, I would like to see teachers have screenings. Basically take an hour in the class and show the 6 episodes over the course of the month, in a well-paced way. I think that would be great. The units are 15 minutes and that fits very well with the structure of a class. In a month they can go through 500 years of African American history. I think the most enterprising teachers will try that with their students—at least I hope so. Without these tools, the history doesn’t get told.
EBONY: When we last spoke about this series during its premiere back in October, you were working to get school systems to make this series and your textbook a part of the curriculum. How is that effort going?
HLG: The response from teachers has been really cool. It will take a while to see [it come to fruition], but I’ve had lots of meetings with groups of hundreds at a time of teachers talking about lesson plans and they have sent me a bazillion emails about how enthusiastic they are. It takes a while, of course, for teachers to do lesson plans and change their curriculum. Ask me again in a year. But this DVD is such a victory for me because we will get it in the schools and teachers will use it, and that means that our people’s stories can more readily become part of the grand narrative of American history.
EBONY: On MLK Day, there was an overwhelming amount of racism spewed on the internet, from politicians to magazine editors, and that served to simply highlight the institutional racism that is still so rampant. As someone whose life work has been in the study of the contributions of Blacks in America and across the Diaspora, how do you deal with these microagressions as well as structural racism, knowing that so much was sacrificed and not much has changed for Black people as a whole?
HLG: It’s a really good question. The way that I think about it is to use the famous Dickens line from A Tale of Two Cities: it’s the best of times, it’s the worst of times. It’s not original, but it’s the truth. On the one hand, we have all these Black men in prison and the same percentage of Black children living at or beneath the poverty line that lived at or beneath poverty line the day Dr. King was killed, about 35%. My God. But on the other hand the Black upper-middle class has quadrupled and the Black middle class has doubled. We have all of these Black mayors and Black Congresspeople and a Black man in the White House. Things are better than they’ve ever been, you can say that, for the race overall, but not for every individual in the race. This is the reality that we are confronting. …So that’s the most significant thing Barack Obama can do after health care is to create a class escalator for all Americans that will [largely impact] Black Americans.
I take courage and inspiration from the achievements of our people, whether it’s Phillis Wheatley in 1773 or Barack Obama in 2008. Much remains to be done, but the fact that you and I can even have this conversation is a sign of the progress we have made. So the challenge is to talk about the good without papering over the bad and to talk about the bad without downplaying the significance of the good.
“The African-Americans: Many Rivers to Cross” is now available on DVD here.
Brooke Obie is an EBONY.com contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter @BrookeObie.