An African American family, including Lloyd Mason, in Sugarland, Maryland,...

An African American family, including Lloyd Mason, in Sugarland, Maryland, is depicted in PBS' "Making Black America."  Credit: Museum of African American History, Boston and Nantucket

SERIES "Making Black America: Through the Grapevine"

WHEN | WHERE Premieres Tuesday at 9 p.m. on WNET/13.

WHAT IT'S ABOUT In this four-parter, Henry Louis Gates Jr. takes viewers on a tour of a vast and almost-secret history — of Black America's will to survive and thrive beyond the "white gaze." He talks with many scholars and a few "old friends"' — including "Moonlight" actor André Holland — to explore what this all meant, and still does.

The subtitle "Through the Grapevine," by the way, refers to a recurring line in Booker T. Washington's "Up From Slavery," in which the early civil rights leader (and founder of the Tuskegee Institute) refers to a "grapevine" of information that was traded among slaves about the ongoing Civil War — accurate information unknown even to those holding them in bondage. 

MY SAY A revered teacher of mine who was Black once told me that while growing up in Philadelphia and South Carolina of the late 1940s and '50s, he hardly ever encountered racism. The reason, he explained, was simple enough — he hardly ever encountered any white people. Instead, from cradle through college, he lived in a parallel world — of stores, trains, restaurants, colleges and culture. This was hardly the detestable "separate but equal" world of segregationists, but it was a separate world, and for a time, nurturing, safe and almost comfortable, he recalled.

This also happens to be the place — or "space," to use "Making Black America's preferred term — that existed "on the other side of the color line," explains Gates. It was "defined by unfettered racial expression, and [was] a world behind what W.E.B. DuBois called 'the veil.' ''

"Making Black America'' pulls back that veil to find a rich history and — given what it was up against — a triumphant one, too. To envision the country after the revolution into the early 1800s, as "Making" does, would be to see a spread of small dots that ran all the way down from Vermont into the Deep South, each representing an independent Black community with its own churches, benevolent associations, schools and newspapers. Weeksville in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, was a prominent such dot, and though not mentioned here, there were many on Long Island, too, like Success and Spinney Hill (both in Lake Success), Roslyn Heights and New Cassel.

Those grew and prospered, then later became the most important stops on the Underground Railroad. When freed Blacks sometimes sought to establish outposts in predominantly white cities, the pushback was often violent: A murderous attack in 1829 in Cincinnati forced "half the Black population" of the city to flee, but also fomented the creation of so-called "Colored Conventions" where attendees promoted "Black thought" devoted to the immediate and urgent consideration of how to survive in a world largely bent on their destruction.

Gates' historical perspective is — and almost always has been — one of triumphalism; rather than just victims, Black Americans were also victors and from Black thought arose stratagems (fraternal orders) and essential alternatives (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) that became foundations of Black life. Jim Crow and "separate but equal" far from diminished what went on behind the veil, but strengthened and empowered it. Indeed, the Black Renaissance arose out of the worst horrors since the Civil War.

Gates is a first-rate storyteller but he can be distracted at times. Of the two hours that were reviewed, the first covers almost too much ground. There's a crush of information along with the occasional panel discussion segue, where story threads are dropped, then picked up again. 

But when "Making Black America" regroups in the second hour (devoted largely to HBCUs), so does the clarity of its message. What happened beyond the veil was a triumph of the human spirit. It endures to this day.

BOTTOM LINE Fascinating, informative.


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