Henry Louis Gates, Jr. hopes that his latest PBS documentary, The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., will not only educate the public but also lead to reform in the nation’s public school system.
“We need one documentary to show the whole sweep of history to make it easy for teachers to incorporate black history into the larger story of American history. It is too much work and too expensive for teachers to do it any other way,” he says.
The series runs for the next six weeks and aims to cover the full scope of African-American history from 1513, which marks the arrival of Juan Garrido, the first documented black person in the U.S. to the present-day historic election of President Barack Obama. Gates knows that in order for such history to be fully integrated into the nation’s school systems he will need the support of politicians.
“We need the Congressional Black Caucus and political leaders to press for mandating this full integration in our common core curriculum. I hope this series will be a tool to facilitate that.”
One of the lesser-known stories in African-American history is the life of Solomon Northup, a free black man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery. He was eventually freed and wrote his memoir, 12 Years a Slave, which has been made into one of the year’s most highly acclaimed films. Still some have criticized director Steve McQueen’s depiction of slaves being beaten, tortured or killed. At a New York City screening last week hosted by Kevin Powell, Rev. Al Sharpton defended the film.
“I don’t like to see the blood and brutality but that’s what happened,” he says. “Unless we see the vicious part of the story we cannot appreciate where we are now.”
One of the night’s attendees, Lil’ Mama is grateful to find herself in a good space. Just a few short years ago the rapper was being ridiculed for crashing the stage during Jay-Z and Alicia Keys’ 2009 MTV Video Music Awards performance. But she is now receiving praise for her role as the late Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes in VH1’s movie CrazySexyCool: The TLC Story. For Lil’ Mama that positive feedback means the most coming from the Lopes family. According to her the Lopes family enjoyed the film despite their disappointment in not being allowed more involvement in the moviemaking process. “I heard from TLC’s manager that he played it for the entire Lopes family and they are pleased. He says ‘they are not easy to please.’”
Lil’ Mama went on to say that she wants to do more acting and will also continue her music career, which may possibly see her record with TLC for their forthcoming new album of original material.
It was all about the music at last week’s fifth annual Right to Rock benefit hosted by non-profit organization, Little Kids Rock. The event generated over $850,000 in donations to help fund music lessons and free instruments for disadvantaged public schools across the nation. The evening held special meaning for the night’s honoree, Darlene Love since she grew up without a music education due to her family’s religious background.
“I was brought up Pentecostal and they didn’t believe in what they called the devil’s music. I never believed it was devil’s music. God created music. I believe it is good for the soul. So it is wonderful to see the kids light up with what we are doing. Raising money for them is so important,” she says.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee also stars in this year’s popular documentary, Twenty Feet from Stardom and it is receiving considerable Oscar buzz. But Love has a hard time watching the film in which she recounts past financial struggles that led to her working as a housekeeper. “What’s amazing about that documentary is when I tell the story it’s not as painful. But to watch it—I cried about my hard times and cleaning houses. That was a turning point in my life.”
Still she’s happy to share her story to help others, especially the youth of Little Kids Rock. “The youth don’t know and that’s why the movie is great. It tells you the pros and cons of our business."
If Gates and Love have it their way the public school system will soon be full of expansive history and music lessons. Now is that really such a bad idea, after all?
The weekly column, On the “A” w/Souleo, covers the intersection of the arts, culture and entertainment scene in Harlem and beyond and is written by Souleo, founder and president of event/media content production company, Souleo Enterprises, LLC.