Oct 242013

By Harvey Blume

Henry Louis Gates Jr. in New York City this year.

Henry Louis Gates in New York City this year.

The PBS series, The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross has just debuted. If the first episode, “The Black Atlantic (1500-1800)” is any indication, this is a series not to be missed. In the first episode, Henry Louis Gates Jr. takes viewers back to Africa to talk, not as has been done before, with Africans whose forebears were lost to slavery but with descendants of Africans who grew rich on slave trade — strong, revered men, warriors who prided themselves on selling conquered opponents to Western slavers, and who pursued conquest in part to do so.

This, of course, flies in the face of the mythos that slavery was imposed on helpless, victimized Africans entirely from without. But it’s nothing new for Henry Louis Gates Jr. to speak truth to mythos: in a profile of Louis Farrakhan for The New Yorker (“The Charmer”, 4/29/1996), he challenged Farrakhan’s anti-Semitism. I know of no other African American intellectual who was willing, at that time, to step up and do likewise. I knew of some African-Americans who said anti-Semitism was entirely a European thing, a white problem, and that they, therefore, were immune. That their argument was made in English, a non-African language, from which they were apparently not immune, did not disturb them.

After showing that Africans were complicit in the beginnings of what became the plantation system as practiced in North America and the Caribbean, the show shifts. It details the unspeakable horror of the slave ships, the Middle Passage. It moves on to the attempted suppression of whatever African culture survived that ordeal, as expressed in African ritual, dance, and drumming. It shows that many Africans — not yet, I think, to be termed, in any legitimate way, African Americans — absorbed the news of the American Revolution, thought through it, and concluded their best chance was to side with the British, who, after all, were not their slave masters. And it depicts the terror communicated throughout the slaveocracy by the Haitian Revolution, which proved, despite prevailing opinion among whites, that blacks were human enough to both hate their condition and overthrow it.

There have been movies of late referring back and attempting to come to terms with slavery. There was Django, to be sure, which demonstrates that brutal revenge is the one thematic element that Quentin Tarentino can always be counted on to prize and emphasize, to the brutal exclusion of all others. There is 12 Years a Slave, which I haven’t seen, but will and must. And there are further episodes of The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, as narrated by Henry Louis Gates Jr., with his rare gift for both serious scholarship and serious popularization.

Harvey Blume is an author—Ota Benga: The Pygmy At The Zoo—who has published essays, reviews, and interviews widely, in the New York Times, Boston Globe, Agni, The American Prospect, and The Forward, among other venues. His blog in progress, which will archive that material and be a platform for new, is here. He contributes regularly to The Arts Fuse and wants to help it continue to grow into a critical voice to be reckoned with.


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