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Henry Louis Gates Jr. On Untangling African-American History

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The history of Africans in the Americas is a long and complicated one, filled with tragic twists and hopeful turns. Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. has taken on the task of telling the story in its entirety in the new PBS documentary The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross.

The noted scholar spoke with Tell Me More host Michel Martin about why it's important to trace the path of African American people in the documentary format, and how to change the conversation about race.

Interview Highlights

On why he became a documentary film maker

I was actually inspired — in retrospect, as these things go — to study African American history by a black documentary. And it was aired in 1968, I was seventeen years old, and we watched it on this little black and white television — you remember those — and it just transformed my life. I was riveted. It was Bill Cosby's documentary called Black History: Lost, Stolen, or Strayed. And it opened up this whole heretofore hidden universe of information to me about people of African descent in the United States.

On Africans being involved in the slave trade

It's certainly a shock to most Americans — particularly to African Americans — when they learn... that the overwhelming percentage of slaves shipped to the New World were captured by Africans from other Africans. And not, Michel, like we thought when we were growing up which was that our ancestors were out say on a picnic on Sunday, and all of a sudden Europeans jumped out of the bushes and threw a net on them, and they ended up in a cotton plantation in Alabama. It didn't work that way. It was a business. And it drives some people crazy when we talk about that, but it's just the truth and we have no choice. And it shows that Africans, people of African descent, can be driven by greed and malicious motives just like other people can.

On the failures of the "Conversation About Race"

Every time there's a racial incident in this country, there are calls by our political leaders by our activists, our spokespersons for the so-called "conversation about race." So what does the conversation about race mean? People gather together in a kind of town meeting. They stand up and talk anecdotally about pains and slights... And then everyone feels better and they go home ... And then a couple weeks later there's another Trayvon Martin shooting. Real conversations about crucial things in America happen in our schools. Schools have always, from the beginning of the republic, been the venue for the shaping of citizenship. The presence of African Americans has to be integrated into the story we tell about the founding of this great republic and its settlement, and its expansion.

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