“The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross” is the companion book to the six-part, documentary series of the same name by Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, Jr. airing Tuesdays, (October 22 – November 26, 2013 at 8pm ET/PT) on PBS. Gates’ enlisted a team of over three dozen historians to detail African Americans from the origins of slavery on the African continent and the arrival of the first Black conquistador, Juan Garrido, in Florida in 1513, through five centuries of remarkable historic events right up to today—when Barack Obama is serving his second term as President.
“The research took a long time, and we engaged the services of 40 historians of African history and African American history as consultants,” said Gates. “I had them send me a list of the indispensable stories that their course would have to cover in terms of African American history, and with 40 people working independently we got over a thousand different suggestion of stories to tell. Now obviously, you can only tell in one hour about 10 stories, maybe 11, and so we worked for years paring down those stories to tell 70 essential stories of the African American experience over the last 500 years.”
Remarkably, the series is the first of its kind since 1968 to chronicle cohesively 500 years of African American history. According to Gates, Philadelphia’s own Bill Cosby’s revealing 1960’s documentary was instrumental in charting his eventual course as a historian. “[The research] was like going back to graduate school for me – and I love it – and it reminded of the fact that my first real course that I loved at Yale as a graduate was ‘Introduction to Afro American History,’ as it was called then, and I took that course because I had watched Bill Cosby’s documentary, ‘Black History: Lost, Stolen or Strayed,’ and that was the first documentary on African American history and it was shown in 1968. So, for me it was like going back to 1968, 69 and fulfilling a dream I had at that time.”
Gates, 63, is a literary critic, educator, scholar, writer, and editor. He was the first African American to receive the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Fellowship and has received numerous honorary degrees and awards for his teaching, research, and development of academic institutions to study Black culture. Gates has hosted several PBS television miniseries, including the history and travel programs “Wonders of the African World” and the biographical “African American Lives” and “Faces of America”. Gates sits on the boards of many notable arts, cultural, and research institutions and currently serves as theAlphonse Fletcher University Professor at Harvard University, where he is director of the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research.
Professor Gates travels throughout the United States, taking viewers on an engaging journey through African-American history. He visits key historical sites, partakes in lively debates with some of America’s top historians and interviews living eyewitnesses — including school integration pioneers Ruby Bridges and Charlayne Hunter-Gault, former Black Panther Kathleen Neal Cleaver, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, and many more.
“The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross,” the book, explores a range of topics in even more detail than made possible in the television series. Gates examines many other fascinating topics such as the ethnic origins of both regional and cultural diversity of Africans whose enslavement led to the creation of African American people. It delves into the multiplicity of cultural institutions, political strategies, and religious/social perspectives that African Americans have created in the half a millennium since their ancestors first arrived on the shores of America.
“It turns out that 24 percent of our ancestors that came here during the slave trade are from Angola, and here’s the kicker: Angola (the kingdom of Kongo-Angola), converted to Roman Catholicism in the 1480s,” explained Gates. “That means that all of those Africans that came here as slaves, 25 percent of our ancestors were Roman Catholics; they were African Christians when they set foot off the slave ship. The African elites who had captured them and sold them to the Portuguese had converted them. So we had Muslims, obviously lots of Muslims from the area around Senegal, northern Nigeria and all along the western coast and we had indigenous Christians . Most historians have told the story that Africans didn’t become Christians until they were converted over here in the New World, but that is not true.”
Like the television series, this book guides readers on an engaging journey through the Black Atlantic world—from Africa and Europe to the Caribbean, Latin America, and the United States—to shed new light on what it has meant, and still means, to be an African American. “We want to tell about the world they created, how they survived, and how they eventually thrived,” Gates continues. “This isn’t the history of George Washington. It’s the history of his slave, Harry Washington. This isn’t the story of ‘American Bandstand.’ It’s the story of ‘Soul Train.’”
Ultimately, the book emphasizes the idea that African American history encompasses multiple continents and venues, and must be viewed through a transnational perspective to be fully understood and respected.
The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross (SmileyBooks, $34.95-hardcover; $16.99-Kindle) by Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Donald Yacovone is available on Amazon.com.