For a glance at how providential -- or random -- TV can be, consider this story about Bill Cosby and Andy Rooney, who together helped lay a cornerstone of PBS' 2013 season, "The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross."
The year is 1968, and the setting a living room in West Virginia, where a young man -- just turned 18 and headed to Yale in a few days -- sits down before the family TV set.
Henry Louis Gates, now 63, recalled in a recent interview that the program he saw with his parents on that long-ago September night had an "electric effect" on him. Written by Rooney -- as acerbic then as ever -- and narrated by Cosby, the CBS "special" was called "Black History: Lost, Stolen or Strayed" and argued that 500 years of African-American history had essentially been wiped clean. With the exception of music, every accomplishment, triumph, invention or contribution to the broad scope of American life and culture had been forgotten or swept away, leaving just this one immovable object in place -- the bitter legacy of slavery.
This was an angry broadcast, all 53 minutes or so, but one especially mindful of the power of history as it relates to ethnic self-image. White America's willful negligence of black history had to be changed, it charged, but who would be the change agent?
With that question in his head, Gates went off to college, where he enrolled in William S. McFeeley's famed African-American studies program -- then one of the first in the country -- and never looked back. Forty-five years later, he is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard -- a mouthful that designates his stature as the nation's pre-eminent scholar of African-American history. He also is author of 16 books and producer of a dozen films and documentaries, each meant to redress what "Lost, Stolen or Strayed" so plainly -- and painfully -- established all those years ago.
'LONG NIGHT OF SLAVERY'
But "Many Rivers to Cross" (premiering Tuesday at 8 p.m. on WNET/13) -- the title comes from the 1969 Jimmy Cliff hit of the same name -- is as much a culmination of Gates' TV work as a continuation of it. "The black people who came to this land nurtured aspirations and dreams -- dreams that would never disappear, even in the long night of slavery," he says at the outset. "Many Rivers" sets out to tell the story of many of those dreams -- and not just the nightmares. It is the redressing of history's oversight on a grand scale -- covering 500 years, in six hours.
Over the phone -- as on TV -- Gates brings none of the bite or bitterness of that long-ago show that inspired him. He's a genial, affable presence in this film: less professor, more guide, who asks the questions (about 40 expert consultants were tapped for this project) and probes for details. As a result, this feels more like a journey of discovery than a destination, and viewers are along on the trip with "Skip," Gates' nickname of years' standing.
The process of roping these six hours together was complicated. "I spent seven years with 40 historians and asked them to send me a list of the indispensable canonical stories that anybody telling this story would have to include I got a thousand."
A GRUELING PROCESS
But "not every story is filmable, and you can only get 10 stories in an hour, so I figured we could do 70, and then we spent a year on these, trying to figure out how one would relate to another, and we even spent a year going back and forth over what the six periods should be. They all disagreed."
Grueling as the process was, Gates insists the final product is a distillation of hard fact, stripped of wishful thinking or "political correctness and is often politically incorrect," most notably the first hour's exploration of Africans' key role in the slave trade. "It was one of those things that so many people held on to -- that our ancestors were innocent and victims of the slave trade. Well, it turns out that the origins were considerably messier than anyone wanted to believe. People find it embarrassing and would rather not talk about it, but I'm a scholar and would."
Even with his six-hour scope, "Many Rivers" feels brief (three hours were available for review at deadline), and that is by design because, as Gates explains, he is just beginning to tell this story on TV: "This is the completion of the first part of my] dream. Now on to the second level, where I want to go more deeply into each of the key areas of African-American history," he says.
Besides that old Cosby- Rooney program, Gates says his other inspiration was Henry Hampton's "Eyes on the Prize," a 14-hour film on the civil rights movement that aired on PBS in 1987 and 1990. Like that standard, he wants his TV history to become a single resource, or a one-stop-shop TV experience for anyone who wants to understand the full scope of African-American history: "Seeing blacks across our history has to be as natural as seeing pilgrims and Puritans," he says. "It's never been that way."
A guide to 'The African Americans'
Here's a quick viewers' guide to "The African Americans" (all episodes air at 8 p.m. on WNET/13):
TUESDAY: "The Black Atlantic (1500-1800)" -- Begins with the story of Juan Garrido (c. 1480-c. 1550), an African-Spanish conquistador, then segues to the first "20-and-odd" slaves who arrived at Jamestown. (Or up the river from Jamestown? That question is explored here.)
OCT. 29: "The Age of Slavery (1800-1860)" -- The cotton industry grows, and with it slavery. Resistance to slavery also grew -- and one of the first armed insurrections takes place in the Deep South, with Haiti -- which broke free of France as the world's first black republic -- as inspiration.
NOV. 5: "Into the Fire (1861-1896)" -- Reconstruction arrives after the Civil War, but the "moment in the sun" is brief, as hard-won post-Civil War liberties are ceded to a much longer age of repression and violence, as white supremacists and the Ku Klux Klan eviscerate the civil rights of an entire population.
NOV. 12: "Making a Way Out of No Way (1896-1940)" -- Emerging from the Jim Crow era are leaders like Ida B. Wells, W.E.B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington and Marcus Garvey, each of whom chart different strategies to battle segregation. This is also a period, at the beginning of the new century, when millions of blacks would begin an exodus to the North. In New York, the Harlem Renaissance gets under way.
NOV. 19: "Rise! (1940-1968)" -- After World War II, black soldiers returned to a still-
segregated homefront in parts of the country -- seeding the rapid rise of the civil rights movement, which, in fact, had its beginnings earlier in the century. Martin Luther King Jr. becomes its face and voice.
NOV. 26: "It's Nation Time (1968-2013)" -- As the black middle class grew, a large "underclass" swelled, isolating the urban poor in the inner city. A huge prison class grew, too -- or an "epidemic of incarceration." A two-term African-American president has yet to solve the class divide that still exists. And this final program asks the question: "How will African-Americans help redefine the United States in the years to come?"