'The African Americans' review: Engrossing

Norman Rockwell depicted the history-changing walk by the

Norman Rockwell depicted the history-changing walk by the six-year old Ruby Bridges in his iconic painting titled "The Problem We All Live With." (Credit: PBS)

THE DOCUMENTARY SERIES "The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross"

WHEN | WHERE Starts Tuesday night at 8 on WNET/13. Airs Tuesdays through Nov. 26.

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s six-hour journey through African-American history begins in 1500, exploring the roots of the African slave trade (along with the role of Africans in it), and ends in November in present time, after Barack Obama's re-election, where "now we ask: How will African-Americans help redefine the United States in the years to come?" While the focus is usually on broad historic developments, Gates often bores down to micro-history as well, where paradoxes abound. Example? The story of Anthony Johnson -- "Anthony the Negro" -- who arrived in Virginia in 1621, eventually secured his freedom and prosperity, though the commonwealth confiscated his land after his death, declaring him an "alien."


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MY SAY Deep into next week's second hour ("The Age of Slavery") Gates tosses off an observation about the struggles of free blacks in the North who "had been in America too long and invested too much to back down." But it's also a line that could easily describe the full scope of the African-American experience, as reflected in this excellent series. Five-hundred years of African-American history, 460 of those dominated by a variation on one hard theme. As always a congenial presence, Gates could, nonetheless, have told "Many Rivers to Cross" as a screed -- others certainly have -- but never once is a voice raised, a finger pointed or blame cast. The facts take care of that business for him. Instead, his is often a triumphalist story -- of victims but especially of heroes, martyrs and visionaries. Some were famous. At least one -- hint, he has a major thoroughfare in New York City named after him -- changed the world. But most barely made a ripple, their stories lost to posterity until rescued by a historian like one of the 40 who contributed to this series. Yet, they all crossed a river, sometimes many rivers, and as this program makes so abundantly clear, every American -- black or white -- is incalculably richer for their efforts.

BOTTOM LINE At least over the first four hours available for review, not a single minute seems superfluous. This is all-engrossing, and all-informative.

GRADE A

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