Conversation of the Week LXIII: New PBS Documentary Examines the Roaring Success of Slavery As Capitalism Gone Berserk

October 21, 2013
Written by Frazier Moore in
National Collegiate Dialogue
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This Aug. 7, 2013 photo shows Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. during PBS’ "The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross with Henry Louis Gates Jr." session at the Television Critics Association Summer Press Tour in Los Angeles. The new PBS documentary series that traces 500 years of black history premieres Tuesdays, Oct. 22 - Nov. 26, 2013, 8:00-9:00 p.m. ET.
This Aug. 7, 2013 photo shows Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. during PBS’ "The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross with Henry Louis Gates Jr." session at the Television Critics Association Summer Press Tour in Los Angeles. The new PBS documentary series that traces 500 years of black history premieres Tuesdays, Oct. 22 - Nov. 26, 2013, 8:00-9:00 p.m. ET. Photo Credit: The Associated Press, Courtesy of Rahoul Ghose/PBS

Slavery in the United States was once a roaring success whose wounds still afflict the country today.

So says Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who examines both its success and shame in "The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross," his new PBS documentary series that traces 500 years of black history.

"Slavery is a perfect example of why we need limits on the more unfortunate aspects of human nature," he says. "Slavery was capitalism gone berserk."

The horrifically profitable practice of slavery and the brutal inhumanity of Jim Crow loom large in "The African Americans" (premiering Tuesday at 8 p.m. EDT; check local listings), which, through its six hours, performs a neat trick: Its reach extends far beyond American shores, venturing through the Caribbean region and all the way to Africa, while deftly folding this sprawl of black history into the larger American story that, too often, has kept the role of black America shunted to the margins.

Slavery – "the supreme hypocrisy" – was always an essential ingredient of the American experiment. White America always drew heavily on the labor, culture and traditions of blacks while denying them due credit in exchange, not to mention their human rights.

The father of our country was one of its largest slave owners, even as one of his slaves, Harry Washington, understandably fled to join a British regiment and fight against the patriots.

"Because of the profound disconnect between principles of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and the simultaneous practice of slavery, we've had historical amnesia about slavery," Gates was saying in a recent interview. "We still see the effects, and feel them."

Even the site for the nation's capital city – Washington, D.C. – was chosen to accommodate the mighty bloc of Southern slave owners.

And the series also notes that, among too many other cruel paradoxes, slaves cut the stone and laid the bricks for the U.S. Capitol.

"The African Americans" doesn't fall prey to white scapegoating. For instance, Africans practiced slavery long before white Europeans cashed in, and Gates journeys to Sierra Leone, where he visits with Africans whose forebears profited from it.

Gates &ndash an author, Harvard scholar, social critic and filmmaker – is more interested in recognizing and discovering oft-neglected pieces of the American puzzle.

The series starts with what Gates deems a downright scoop. It turns out the very first African to come to North America was a free man accompanying Spanish explorers who arrived in Florida in 1513. This was more than a century before the first 20 African slaves were brought to the British colony of Jamestown by pirates who traded them for food.

Thus does his series roll the clock back 106 years to a largely unknown starting point in African-American history.

From there, it covers slavery, the Civil War, the Jim Crow era and the rise of civil rights. It concludes on a high note, exactly 500 years from where it began, with the second inauguration of Barack Obama, the nation's first black president.

Even so, Gates says he didn't want to sound a false note of triumph: "By nature, I'm an optimist, but we end the series with the message, 'This is the best of times, the worst of times.'"

Worst? He points out many dismaying facts. A disproportionate number of black men are imprisoned today. A huge percentage of black children are born out of wedlock to single mothers.

And it's no secret that, while a winning number of Americans cheered on Obama, many others disdain the idea of a black man in the White House, a mindset Gates sees as yet another legacy of slavery and the racism it perpetuated.

One possible solution - and one mission for his series – is to bring the big picture to the nation's schools, where Gates hopes to place "The African Americans" as part of a permanent curriculum.

"If we start with first grade, in 12 years we'll have the whole school re-educated about the real nature of American history," he says. "The series is designed to inspire black people about the nobility of our tradition in this country, and to inspire ALL people about the nobility of that struggle.

"If we confront the excesses and sins of the past," he says, "it will help us understand where we are today."

EDITOR'S NOTE – Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. Email Frazier at Follow Frazier Moore on Twitter.


Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.

National Collegiate Dialogue


Slavery was a psychological

Submitted by STBONF2013-10 on

Slavery was a psychological conflict within our country. It was able to occur because of the positive effects slavery had on our economy. People chose to ignore the facts that people were being dehumanized for the benefit of a small few. But this was more than just an economic problem, it was a problem of conscience. People were able to justify that becoming wealthy was worth the sacrifice of a race within the United States. People were willing to sacrifice their own country's moral ground to benefit the country's economy. This moral conflict is a scar that is still visible in our society today. And people need to be able to see that people are more valuable than money for it to ever truly heal.

I agree

Submitted by STBONF2013-22 on

I completely agree. People in the past were able look past slavery because they personally bettered from it wether it was in a social aspect or a economic aspect. People now look past the conditions that many black americans are living in because it allows them to have someone look down open and opens up better opportunities for themselves.

I Agree

Submitted by STBONF2013-16 on

I totally agree with his position that slavery was a totally economic ploy to make the most out of labor and the goods to gain the most amount of profit. In essence, basic humanity of these people were ignored so that the white man could make more money. This itself is incredibly wrong, but the fact that it contradicted so highly with the Supreme Law of the Land (our Constitution) and our credo (The Declaration of Independence) is what really gets to me. In essence, I also agree with his claim that racism today is a vibration from the past that is a scar from slavery that we as a society still hold today. I personally agree with him too that education is key in order to restructure American society, otherwise, the same prejudices and social constructs will be perpetuated.

I Agree

Submitted by CSULBF2013-10 on

In my experience, talking with people whom came from generations of slave ownership, it is something that they see as normal, not something horrific. It was something that they grew up with and didn't know otherwise, it was of benefit to their family/farms. However I do feel that today's versions of text books simply portray the stories that they want to. Emphasizing some stories and barely touching other historic events. I feel as is slavery in the United States is an area that is touched on briefly and only shows a very light introduction to what happened. Implementing a curriculum that will help open up eyes of the younger generations will only benefit in having minds be open and having preconceived notions of particular races broken down and eventually eliminated.

Slavery was a product of an

Submitted by PARKS2014-06 on

Slavery was a product of an extreme difference in socioeconomic status. We still see forms of slavery in films, like The Hunger Games, where the wealthy population is able to establish dominance over the financially poor. The journey for racial equality aligns with the journey for financial equality, as some products of racism parallel issues generated by differences in socioeconomic status.