Review: ‘The African Americans’ a sweeping social history

Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s new series on PBS is "The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross."
Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s new series on PBS is “The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross.”
(Rahoul Ghose / PBS)

Besides its all-inclusive historical sweep — from the first African to set foot in the New World to the first African American to occupy the White House — what distinguishes Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s new series, “The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross,” from many previous documentaries on the black experience is … Henry Louis Gates Jr.

Gates, a Harvard professor and academic typhoon the world knows as “Skip,” is one of the more familiar faces of public television; his earlier programs include “Wonders of the African World,” “America Beyond the Color Line” and the celebrity what’s-my-DNA shows “African American Lives” and “Faces of America.” PBS is where his lively new series will air as well, beginning Tuesday.

In presenting a learned but also personal vision of the subject — a guided tour — Gates’ television work is stylistically more British than American, in that it features the creator as on-camera host, and it represents his own voice, interests and enthusiasm. That’s not to say that other voices aren’t heard, but there is a conversational quality to the interviews; the host is ever present.

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So although the subject is epic, the approach is intimate, even informal. Gates exhibits what I can only think to call an engaged dispassion throughout. He takes the historical long view, even as he feels the injuries to his people.

What he has assembled is a sweeping social history that notes major turning points — he is fond of phrases such as “History is about to be altered” — without attempting to touch a thousand bases along the way. He moves fast, without appearing to hurry. Still, as only three of six hours are, as of this writing, available for review, any overarching points he may have to make are veiled to me.

If the details can sometimes be counterintuitive (and Gates, whose signature sound is a surprised “Hmmm!,” loves nothing so much as counterintuitive details), the story the series’ first half tells is depressingly straightforward. Black people were enslaved, before and after a revolution that declared all men were created equal, because it was economically or politically advantageous to white people to make them so.

Their history describes an ongoing attempt to live free, safely and without disadvantage. (Why did he do it, Gates asks one of his learned interlocutors — nearly every one is identified as “historian” — of Nat Turner’s rebellion. “He did it because slavery was horrible,” he is told.) Everything else is just rationalization.


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Historians are storytellers, and there is an emphasis here on feeling the past, getting inside its sights and sounds and bringing it to life. “Can you imagine?” Gates asks. “Set the scene for me.” Old graphics are made dimensional; old, gone buildings are superimposed onto the modern landscape. Old photos turn to modern video, with Gates dissolving into the picture.

He goes here, he goes there, in a boat, in a plane, on foot. He travels to Sierra Leone to discuss the African role in the slave trade (a line of inquiry that has proved controversial for him in the past). He walks the rooms where Mum Bett (Elizabeth Freeman), whose 1781 suit against the state of Massachusetts effectively ended slavery there, worked as slave. He walks the paths of the Second Middle Passage, where slaves chained at the neck marched south, when the cotton boom increased human trafficking from the Northern slave states to the Southern. He stands beneath the oak tree where Mary Peake taught former slaves to read.

The approach is chronological, and what I’ve seen takes us through the false dawn of Reconstruction and, with the unhelpful hand of the Supreme Court in Plessy vs. Ferguson (1896), into the age of Jim Crow’s “separate but equal.” Gates’ parsing of the 20th and 21st centuries (including, I would presume, his own 2009 encounter with the Cambridge, Mass., police on the occasion of his “breaking in” to his own house) remains to be seen. But new state laws to make voting more difficult remind us that, an African American president notwithstanding, this story is still being written.



‘The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross’

Where: KOCE


When: 8 p.m. Tuesday

Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)