By ANITA GATES
It always seemed pretty straightforward. And horrifying. Early African-American history was the story of thousands of Africans who were captured, shipped like cargo to the New World and sold into slavery, mostly to work and die on Southern plantations.
But Henry Louis Gates Jr. and PBS show us that history’s complexity in a beautifully done six-part, six-hour documentary, “The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross,”which begins on Tuesday night and continues weekly through Nov. 26.
Mr. Gates — the Harvard professor, author and critic — is highly visible, interviewing historians, talking to older black Africans who acknowledge that their ancestors became wealthy through the slave trade, chatting with contemporary black Americans over Hoppin’ John and iced tea, standing at seemingly innocuous city intersections where shameful history unfolded.
Everyone (you hope) knows that slavery existed at least as long ago as Ancient Egypt. Many are also aware that black Africans helped the white slave traders who arrived on their shores. But Episode 1 (“The Black Atlantic: 1500-1800”) delves deeper — in Sierra Leone, the Temne people would sell the Loko people, so they didn’t see it as turning against their own — and points out that Europeans invented the idea that skin color determined who was and was not enslavable. As Mr. Gates observes, “the dehumanization of an entire race” takes a while.
Episode 2 goes up to 1860, including Eli Whitney’s cotton gin, which led to the “second middle passage,” and Nat Turner’s rebellion. Episode 3 deals with the many black men who fought in the Civil War, what the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t do and the short-lived dreams of Reconstruction.
The last three episodes cover 1897-1940 (Jim Crow), 1940-68 (the civil rights movement) and 1968-2013 (the election of this country’s first black president).
Striking artwork is used to illustrate the early years. Inspiring stories of brave men, women and children introduce us to Harry Washington, one of George Washington’s slaves, who ran away from Mount Vernon and joined the British Army; to the first sit-in (a refusal to worship from the “black pews”) at a Philadelphia church in 1786; and to Mound Bayou, Miss., an all-black town founded proudly by former slaves. But we’re left wishing there were time to learn more.
It is revelatory just how different a story sounds when it begins with “There, at the door, stood an enslaved man,” rather than “a slave.”
The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross
On PBS stations on Tuesday night (check local listings).