Slave History Revisited

Concurrent with the release of the film “12 Years a Slave,” to which famed historian Henry Louis Gates Jr acted as fact checker, Gates’ new six episode documentary “African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross” aired this week on PBS.

If you have followed “Skip” Gates past docu-projects which include African American Lives parts 1 & 2, Faces of America, and Finding your Roots, you will know his now familiar format: choose an individual trace their family history through oral and sometimes written histories, then go into national archives to follow various paper trails, and when those dry up do DNA analysis.

The results however are far from formulaic, each person holds within them narratives of ancestors whose cultures, politics, life’s events have formed the fabric of nations. His shows are mesmerizing. Gates is a noted historian of African American studies, who has published and edited seminal text about the Black experience—including Solomon Northup’s book, “Twelve Years a Slave” which is published under Penguin Classics. While known as a scholar Gates’ real passion lies in making documentary film, which he says was inspired by a Bill Cosby produced documentary; Black History; Lost, Stolen, or Strayed that aired in 1968.

In Many Rivers to Cross, Gates explores the actual nuts and bolts of the slave trade, how it worked as a business not merely economically but logistically as well as psychologically. For an aspect of American History so critical not just to the founding of this country but its psychology I hope this is just the beginning of a broader and deeper understanding of our Nation.

If you don’t have a TV you can watch episodes of Many Rivers on the PBS websites.

Gates talked to Brian Lehrer on WNYC early this week on the series and African American history.