Black History’s Missing Chapters: ‘The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross,’ on PBS

Black History’s Missing Chapters: ‘The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross,’ on PBS

The New York Times
Felicia R. Lee

The television mini-series “Roots,” about the slave Kunta Kinte and his descendants, is a classic, inspired by real lives and real history. But it is a truism among historians that young people do not know enough about African-American contributions to history. Even a tiny slice of recent history — the civil rights movement — is not required teaching in most states, the Southern Poverty Law Center found in a recent assessment.

“It boils down to Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King and ‘I Have a Dream,’ ” Maureen Costello, director of the center’s Teaching Tolerance Project, said of the typical level of knowledge. Films and the occasional series on black history have helped fill in the gaps, creating a kind of “cultural accretion,” Ms. Costello added, but television in recent years has not consistently offered informative entertainment.

When “Roots” was broadcast in 1977, “the whole nation watched it because there were three networks vying for our attention,” Ms. Costello said. “As a culture, we’ve become so fragmented. I think more Americans can reasonably discuss the meth trade or the Mafia because of ‘Breaking Bad’ and ‘The Sopranos’ than they can African-American history.”

Into the breach has stepped Henry Louis Gates Jr., assisted by dozens of historians. His six-part series, “The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross,” beginning on 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, Professor 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…

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