Charting 5 Centuries of African American History

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  • NEW YORK (AP) — 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 — an author, Harvard scholar, social critic and filmmaker — is more interested in recognizing and discovering oft-neglected pieces of the American puzzle.

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