Doc­u­men­tary looks at chang­ing lives in U.S.

‘Black Amer­ica Since MLK’ looks at chang­ing African Amer­i­can lives

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - FRONT PAGE - By Rob Low­man South­ern Cal­i­for­nia News Group

Per­haps it’s for­tu­nate that PBS’s “Black Amer­ica Since MLK: And Still I Rise” — a four-hour doc­u­men­tary that ex­am­ines the past 50 years of African Amer­i­can history — is air­ing a week af­ter the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion.

Racial is­sues were ev­i­dent through­out the race to the White House, as well as amid con­ver­sa­tions about Black Lives Mat­ter.

“You know, frankly, I’m sur­prised at the push­back,” says Har­vard Pro­fes­sor Henry Louis Gates Jr. when asked about the name of the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment.

“It’s such a sim­ple, catchy phrase. On the face of it, who could ar­gue with it? But it has dis­turbed some peo­ple.”

Gates was be­hind 2013’s Emmy-win­ning “The African Amer­i­cans: Many Rivers To Cross,” which looked at black history from slav­ery up to the elec­tion of Pres­i­dent Barack Obama.

The his­to­rian says he was cast­ing about for a fol­low-up to “Rivers” when Ken Chenault, the CEO of Amer­i­can Ex­press, sug­gested the con­cept for “And Still I Rise.”

“I was 15 in 1965, and Ken and I are about the same age,” notes Gates. “He said, ‘For you, it’s our life­time, but the last 50 years is re­ally history.’ “

So the con­ceit of the new doc­u­men­tary is: What would you tell civil-rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. about what has hap­pened to African Amer­i­cans over the last five decades?

“You’d say there’s a black man in the White House, right? And that’s good. And he’d say, ‘Wow. Was there a rev­o­lu­tion?’ “jokes the pro­fes­sor.

But Gates — para­phras­ing Dick­ens — be­lieves that for blacks, it is the best of times and the worst of times in Amer­ica. He sees af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion as help­ing to cre­ate a larger mid­dle and up­per class for African Amer­i­cans since 1970. Yet “the child poverty rate in the black com­mu­nity is al­most ex­actly the same” as it was when King was mur­dered in 1968.

“Yes, sym­bol­i­cally, we have a beau­ti­ful black fam­ily in the White House, but, on the other hand,” he says, “a huge per­cent­age of our peo­ple are still caught in a cy­cle of poverty, vic­tims of vi­o­lence, black on black vi­o­lence and vi­o­lence vis­ited by the po­lice. All of that is the com­pli­cated truth.”

Gates, him­self, knows how lucky it is to be able to es­cape from poverty. He grew up in West Vir­ginia. His fa­ther worked in a pa­per mill and was a part-time jan­i­tor, while his mother cleaned houses. He says in 1969 he got into Yale be­cause of af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion, and points out only six black men grad­u­ated from the univer­sity in 1970.

His ‘73 class had 96 black men and women grad­u­ate, in­clud­ing Con­gress­woman Sheila Jack­son Lee from Hous­ton, Kurt Schmoke, the first

black mayor of Bal­ti­more, and Ben Car­son. Yes, the sur­geon and politi­cian.

While “And Still I Rise” digs into the rise of the black-power move­ment, ur­ban ten­sions and po­lit­i­cal tri­umphs and dis­ap­point­ments for African Amer­i­cans, in other ways it is a cel­e­bra­tion of the influence of black cul­ture.

In­cluded are mo­ments from Cap­tain Kirk and Lieu­tenant Uhura’s in­ter­ra­cial kiss in 1968 on TV’s “Star Trek” to the hip-hop group De La Soul’s first al­bum in 1989. The doc­u­men­tary also goes into the pop­u­lar­ity of rap, Michael Jack­son and Bey­once, the birth of Essence mag­a­zine, and the im­pact of TV shows like “Soul Train,” “The Flip Wil­son Show” and “The Jef­fer­sons,” which fea­tured African Amer­i­cans and were seen in the homes of peo­ple of all col­ors.

Gates stresses that there is no one story. “Be­cause of af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion, some of us took off up the so­cioe­co­nomic scale in Amer­i­can so­ci­ety,” says the his­to­rian. “But each of us has in our own fam­ily peo­ple who went to jail. How do you cre­ate a nar­ra­tive that is not all neg­a­tive and not all pie in the sky, rosy, pos­i­tive? How can you tell the com­plex truth of the last 50 years with nu­ance and grace? That’s what we tried to do.”

In the doc­u­men­tary, Gates delves into the con­flicts within the dif­fer­ent black move­ments, from the non-vi­o­lent civil­rights marchers to gun­tot­ing Black Panthers. As a Yale stu­dent, he re­mem­bers, “There were all these black bul­lies try­ing to tell

me how to be black.”

“There never has been one way to be black,” he says, and the doc­u­men­tary gives nu­mer­ous ex­am­ples of this.

One of the rea­son Gates wanted to do the doc­u­men­tary was to re­mind peo­ple of events over the past 50 years that have been for­got­ten or over­looked.

“The great thing about Black History Month is that there’s a Black History Month. The bad thing about Black History Month is that it’s a spe­cial iso­lated month,” the his­to­rian says. “The key, if you’re me, is how you get the cur­ricu­lum in­te­grated so that the black ex­pe­ri­ence and the ex­pe­ri­ence of other minority peo­ples be­come in­te­grated ev­ery day.”

For “And Still I Rise” — which has a com­pan­ion book (HarperCollins, $35, il­lus­trated) — Gates tried to cre­ate what he calls “the beauty-par­lor or the bar­ber­shop ef­fect.” It’s when “black peo­ple are

by them­selves and they’re talk­ing freely, with­out any cen­sors so that the au­di­ence is over­hear­ing their con­ver­sa­tion, when no one feels that they have to cen­sor them­selves.”

You may con­sider that while view­ing “And Still I Rise,” which goes from the tan­gled civil-rights move­ment of the past to the dif­fi­cult and painful com­plex­i­ties of the present.

“We all know that for so long in Amer­i­can history, black lives ei­ther didn’t mat­ter at all or didn’t mat­ter as much as cer­tain other peo­ple’s lives,” says Gates.

He quotes 19th cen­tury African Amer­i­can min­is­ter Ben­jamin Mays, who said, “We are in­ter­laced and in­ter­wo­ven in a gar­ment of destiny. We are all bound to­gether in one great hu­man­ity.”

“You can see that that pre­fig­ured dif­fer­ent lines and vari­a­tions Dr. King would later use. And I think that’s at the heart of Black Lives Mat­ter,” says Gates.

COURTESY OF AP PHOTO/JACK THORNELL VIA PBS

The Rev. Ralph Aber­nathy, right, and Bishop Ju­lian Smith, left, flank Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., dur­ing a civil rights march in Mem­phis, Tenn., March 28, 1968.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS PHOTO VIA PBS

At a vigil on the New Haven Green Tues­day, Aug. 26, 1970 sup­port­ers raise their fists chant “Free Lon­nie Mclu­cas.” Mclu­cas, a Black Pan­ther, was tried in con­nec­tion with the death of a fel­low Pan­ther.

COURTESY OF AP PHOTO/CHARLES DHARAPAK VIA PBX

Pres­i­dent Barack Obama greets au­di­ence mem­bers af­ter he spoke about im­mi­gra­tion re­form at Chamizal Na­tional Me­mo­rial Park in El Paso, Texas, Tues­day, May 10, 2011.

AP PHOTO/PA­TRICK SEMANSKY VIA PBS

A man walks past a burn­ing po­lice ve­hi­cle April 27, 2015, dur­ing un­rest fol­low­ing the fu­neral of Fred­die Gray in Bal­ti­more. Gray died from spinal in­juries about a week af­ter he was ar­rested and trans­ported in a Bal­ti­more Po­lice De­part­ment van.

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