In a new six-part PBS documentary and an accompanying book, Henry Louis Gates Jr. attempts to offer 500 years worth of African-American history. “The African Americans: many Rivers to Cross” is the product of seven years of work and collaboration with Donald Yacovone and 40 experts.
Starting in the 1500s and continuing through to 2013, the stories offered in the book and the documentary provide a glimpse into the multilayered and diverse experiences that constitute African-American history, from the story of a swashbuckling Black conquistador who journeyed alongside Juan Ponce de León to a 17th century Black man who had white indentured servants in the United States and many more lesser known stories of our ancestors and contemporaries.
Whether the tales feature famous names or people new to national attention, all of the stories form equally important threads in the tapestry that creates African-American history.
Gates is a renowned scholar in African-American history and is something of a celebrity scholar due in no small part to his work with genealogy and helping people create comprehensive, documented family trees. Such a cultural leader is not lacking in accolades, but he revels in the small gestures.
“Nothing is more gratifying than being acknowledged by your own people,” said Gates after sharing a delightful interaction he had with a former student who had become a professor. He had unknowingly inspired her into a life of academia.
With “The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross,” Gates hopes that teachers will use the book and documentary as teaching tools. “We wrote the book around the series. We wanted to make it compatible. This is appropriate for middle school, high school and college,” said the Harvard professor.
The book is on stands now, and the PBS series began on Tuesday, Oct. 22 and will air every Tuesday through Nov. 26. For more information, visit www.pbs.org/wnet/african-americans-many-rivers-to-cross.