Documentary looks at changing lives in U.S.
‘Black America Since MLK’ looks at changing African American lives
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.