Black American history gets 500-year rewind in PBS series

Mon Oct 21, 2013 7:25pm EDT
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By Mary Milliken

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A new U.S. television documentary series reaches back 500 years to demonstrate how America's black history contained some unsettling nuances and uncomfortable truths from the start.

The six-part series, "The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross," which premieres on PBS on Tuesday, opens with Juan Garrido, a free black man who was among the Spanish conquistadors who arrived in Florida in 1513. He is followed by the first known slave, named Esteban, 13 years later.

For Henry Louis Gates Jr., the Harvard scholar who conceived and presents the documentary, Garrido and Esteban set the tone for the series.

"We are showing that there never was one black experience, that even from the beginning there was a free black experience and a slave black experience," said Gates.

The series, two years in the making, covers the 500 years from Garrido to Barack Obama, the nation's first black president, in 2013.

It coincides with a year of intense debate over what it means to be black in America, sparked by historical and current events.

This year saw the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech and the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation ending slavery.

But it also saw George Zimmerman acquitted of murder for the shooting of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin, and a U.S. Supreme Court decision invalidating part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.   Continued...

Media mogul Oprah Winfrey and professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. (R) arrive for Harvard University's 362nd Commencement Exercises in Cambridge, Massachusetts in this May 30, 2013, file photo. REUTERS/Brian Snyder/Files