The history of the African American people seems far too wide, deep and complex to boil down into 6 television episodes, but that’s what Henry Louis Gates Jr., the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African-American Research at Harvard University, has done with the series he has written and directed for PBS.
The series begins with the origins of slavery in Africa and covers five centuries of historic events right up to the present by highlighting 70 stories developed in collaboration with 40 historians. As the series host, professor Gates travels throughout the United States, leading viewers on a journey through African-American history. He visits key historical sites, debates with some of America’s top historians and interviews eyewitnesses.
Beyond providing a comprehensive black-history curriculum, the series is designed to make one thing clear: “There’s no America without African Americans,” says Gates.
He spoke to The Root about the program’s surprises and lessons and how he hopes it will be received.
The Root: What about the series will be most surprising to viewers?
Henry Louis Gates Jr.: I think the most surprising thing to many viewers will be that [the first] African Americans did not arrive in 1619, when … 20 Africans arrived at Point Comfort, Virginia, and were transported to Jamestown. Rather, it was a century before that, in Florida, when the first black man whose name we actually knew arrived, in 1513.
Juan Garrido was a free black man, not a slave. He was a conquistador, and like the others, he was looking for the fountain of youth. He went to Baja California, Mexico, looking for the black Amazons. We even have a petition he filed to [the] king of Spain asking for a pension. He claims he was the first person ever to sow wheat in the New World. [In the series] we trace the arc of black history from Juan Garrido’s riveting story to, half a millennium later, another black man who happens to be president of the United States.
Another big surprise is the role of Africans in slave trade. I’ve written about it before and it upsets people, but it’s the truth. According to historians Linda Heywood and John Thornton, 90 percent of Africans shipped across the Atlantic were captured by other Africans.
Gates, who is also The Root’s editor-in-chief, discussed the series on NewsOne Now with Roland Martin. Among the surprising moments he revealed was the time he made former secretary of state Colin Powell lose his famous, military composure. ”I asked Colin Powell and several other people, ‘Where were you on November 4, 2008, and what did you feel when Wolf Blitzer on CNN called the election for Barack Hussein Obama?’” Gates said, as you will hear in the clip below. “And to my amazement, [Powell] said, ‘We did it!’ and he wept. Man, it was just amazing!”