Last month, Henry Louis Gates Jr. came to Philadelphia to promote “Black America Since MLK: And Still I Rise,” a new film hosted, produced and written by the Harvard professor. The two-part, four-hour documentary premieres at 8 p.m. Tuesday on WHYY, and concludes at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 22.
In “Black America Since MLK,” Gates, who is also the director of the Hutchins Center for for African and African-American Research, looks at the last 50 years of African-American history — from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to Barack Obama, from James Brown’s “I’m Black and I’m Proud” to Beyoncé’s “Formation.” In doing so, he charts the remarkable progress Black people have made and raises hard questions about the obstacles that remain.
In a recent interview with The Philadelphia Tribune, Gates shared his inspiration for the provocative project.
“A friend of mine, Ken Chenault, who is the CEO of American Express — I was talking to him about new projects — new films I wanted to do,” Gates recalled. “I showed him a list of 10 films, and he said, ‘The most important one isn’t on here,’ and I said, ‘What’s that?’ and he said, ‘Our history. The history of our time. What happened since 1965?’
“I looked at him dumbfounded and I realized that he was absolutely right. When I was 15 in the year 1965, 50 years before was World War I. When you think of it that way ... World War I seemed like ancient history to me when I was 15.
“So, I realized that there are young people today who, other than Martin Luther King, they don’t know the history of the Civil Rights Movement, and don’t know what it meant to let your hair grow out into an Afro and get your first Afro comb, and hear the expression, ‘Black is beautiful,’ and hear James Brown saying, ‘Say it loud! I’m Black and I’m proud!’ And seeing a Black family on television — the Huxtables — or seeing Flip Wilson on the cover of Time magazine, or seeing the first ‘Soul Train.’
“That’s history now,” he said. “Though it was a reality for my generation, it’s history now. To relive those days has just been fabulous for me.”
The series, according to the network, has the distinctive, personal tone of an essay, but is also filled with compelling reflections regarding key events that have occurred over the last 50 years from African Americans who shaped history. Among those interviewed are Oprah Winfrey, Nas, Ava DuVernay, Jesse Jackson, Cornel West, U.S. Rep Shelia Jackson Lee, Donna Brazile, Robert L. Johnson, DeRay Mckesson, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Shonda Rhimes. The conversation also includes input from eyewitnesses to Hurricane Katrina, intellectuals, education reformers and police officers in communities that have been shaken by racial unrest.
In the aftermath of one of the most contentious and divisive presidential election in modern history, Gates says that films such as “Black America Since MLK “ can open the door to greater understanding and tolerance.
“Rather than demonize people that disagree with us, we need more communication, which is why I make PBS series,” he said. “I want everybody to watch it, not just Black people or people who are sympathetic to better race relations, but people who are genuinely unaware of the contours of Black history.
“Black history is American history, and Black history is not for Black people any more than American history is for white Americans,” he added. “It is a part of the national narrative. But my goal is to tell a full, integrated story, and to increase communication across racial lines, but also class lines.”
“ ‘Black America Since MLK’ continues a very important conversation about race in America today, and Henry Louis Gates Jr. weaves this story together in a compelling way that is both very personal while also broad in historical scope,” said Sharon Rockefeller, CEO of WETA, the PBS affiliated in Washington, D.C. “We are thrilled to present this story to public television audiences and look forward to the discourse it invites.”