The African Americans: Many Rivers To Cross is a 2013 documentary presented and written by Henry Louis Gates Jr. which tells the history of Black people in America. Over six episodes, Gates and other historians relate the events and experiences that shaped the lives of Black people. It ventures back to Africa before the first slaves landed on the shores of the Americas up to the present of a few years ago. In some regards, the documentary is like a visual companion piece to Before the Mayflower.
I appreciated that the documentary began with the first Black people that arrived in America with the conquistadors and then went back to Africa. Our ancestors being slaves in the Americas or colonized in Africa and other parts of the world should not be a source of shame. But we must acknowledge that the history of Africa and people of African descent did not begin with slavery or even at the first point of contact with Europeans. Reaching back to discuss not just what was taking place in Africa but also in even pre-colonial America helps give more context to how the system of slavery and the concept of race was developed from the very beginning.
There are clips of the areas where kidnapped Africans would have passed through as well as the islands and slave castles where they were housed. The land and buildings have changed over the centuries but you can kind of imagine how these places looked back then.
There is some clarification and insight into the development of the system of slavery. It’s worth noting two things, Africans were involved in the slave trade and slavery had been in existence for quite some time prior. But the slave trade that brought Africans to the Americas gave rise to a new and different form of slavery around the time that the new concept of race was being developed. The color of one’s skin became a kind of shorthand for easily differentiating between free and enslaved people.
Early on indentured servants from Europe obtained passage to the Americas by agreeing to work for a fixed amount of time before going free. In Africa, a person might be enslaved following a war but their state of bondage was not automatically handed down for generations. That was a new concept. Europeans had fought among themselves for centuries. Yet while they weren’t yet considering themselves united by “race” because they considered themselves Christians, they did not enslave each other. They would fight and kill each other (ex: the World Wars) but did not hold each other in bondage.
As a person of African descent living outside of Africa, being able to trace your family tree back centuries is amazing. You have to take into consideration how slavery functioned in America with most slaves being illiterate and unable to record births or deaths combined with families being broken up. Given the complete disregard for the humanity of Black people and their familial ties, it was quite interesting that the filmmakers were able to trace the family tree of even one specific woman from her being kidnapped and enslaved in Africa to her current descendants. It’s probably not impossible and likely speaks more to my ignorance but I don’t know of anyone else that has been able to trace their ancestors that far back.
I’m happy though not content that some of my ancestors lived relatively long lives and thus through my maternal grandparents, great-grandparents, and great-great-grandparents have been able to learn a bit about the ancestors that they knew. The various branches of my mother’s family mostly lived in one region of the country since at least the 1800s when they seemed to arrive in Guyana from Barbados. In contrast, I know little to nothing about my father’s family despite them seeming to have a relatively long history in Jamaica. Yet, even on my mother’s side of the family things become murky by the late 1800s.
As a foodie, the bit about the influence that slaves had on food was quite interesting. It reminded me of High on the Hog a Netflix show about the history of Black food and cooking in America. That show ties Black food tradition to Africa and explores the similarities in ingredients and cooking style.
For example, consider creole cooking. I visited Guyana for the first time in many years in 2016 when my grandmother died and have made a few return trips since. I didn’t notice it as a kid but they also describe their style of cooking as “creole”. 2016 was also the year when I moved to Atlanta and since then have visited several southern cities. I noticed that the cooking styles in Charleston and New Orleans in particular are quite similar to the food I grew up eating.
Dishes might be called different names and there might be differences in preparation but the similarities are there. Yet despite the distance and oppression of culture, these common threads in cooking have managed to survive over centuries. If you think of jambalaya it’s similar to jollof rice which is similar to West Indian cook-up rice but it has a lot of tomatoes. (Since childhood I’ve always slathered ketchup on my serving of cook-up.) Beignets are sweet fried dough which is similar to West Indian bake/festival. Red beans and rice is pretty much stew peas.
I had previously mentioned to my mom and she agreed while watching High on the Hog that the accents of the Gullah and Geechie people from the Carolinas and Georgia is very similar to that of West Indians, Bajans (people from Barbados) in particular. Because the Gullah and Geechie people were able to preserve more of their African culture, the similarities between them and other people of the Black diaspora are more apparent. Despite being kidnapped and forcefully separated from our origins, those cultural threads have still managed to be passed down through the generations through language and food. I have a deep interest in hidden history so seeing this connection through the ages was completely mesmerizing.
With popular history, there’s what’s told versus what’s not mentioned. Topics are cherry-picked based on what suits the popular story about America’s quest for independence from Britain. There is the mainstream history of America taking place concurrently with the history of Black people. You have this popular telling of the Revolutionary War and the struggle for independence that completely ignores the reality that Black people were still in bondage.
Sometimes Crispus Attucks is mentioned but little to no mention of the enslaved people that went over to the British in hopes of obtaining their freedom during the so-called war for freedom. I remember learning in school about the colonies, the Revolutionary War, and the development of America. Yet, there would be no mention of slavery until maybe one paragraph around the time of the Civil War.
This is part of what attracts me to history, digging beneath the sterile basics to the complex and thorough true story that lies beneath. Not just the history that tells you the filtered basics of what happened. But specifically, the history that goes back and tells you the things that are often hidden or less widely known. Especially when these things haven’t been forgotten by chance but rather through a concentrated effort to hide uncomfortable truths and make history more palatable.
Many Rivers To Cross shows how efforts have been made to present these countries, organizations, businesses, and individuals who were on the wrong side of history in a positive light. It’s cool when documentaries like this reach back and show you the mainstream historical story versus the full story of what was taking place.
Listening to popular culture might lead you to believe that enslaved people were childlike in demeanor, not ill-treated, and thus enjoyed being enslaved. One might assume that some might have run away but for the most part, they never fought back. You might hear about Nat Turner and maybe John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry. But it’s less likely you’ll learn about the other multiple slave revolts such as the one led by Denmark Vesey the one in Jamaica or the importance of the Haitian Revolution and the impact it had on the Western Hemisphere.
I often think of how Haiti is portrayed now. Looked upon as being a poor country with multiple issues and problems. Haiti was the only Black nation in the Caribbean that successfully fought and threw off the shackles of European imperialism. Yet, as a kid growing up in Brooklyn’s Flatbush and Crown Heights neighborhoods, two areas highly populated with people from the Caribbean, I can remember hearing adults speak about Haitians in negative stereotypical terms. But there is little discussion of how a once wealth-producing colony of France obtained its independence just a few years after America, yet things turned out so differently for the two nations.
Many Rivers To Cross mentions that more Black people were taken directly to Haiti from Africa versus America. I had no idea that was even a thing. Part of it might be that history in America is focused on America first, Europe second, and anywhere else is lucky if it gets a mention. Through that lens, as Americans, we think of Black people in America as being the center of the diaspora but we’re not the most populous. Not to get off on a tangent as there is a lot to cover in just telling the history of Black Americans. But it would be cool to see a documentary along these lines about the history of Black people in various African countries and across the diaspora. I’d also be down to see a film about the Haitian Revolution.
There’s this false narrative of Black people praying but not necessarily fighting for their freedom and humanity. In having conversations with Black people about various events some feel as though Black people have been too accommodating. Take the Civil Rights Movement for example. There was more to the Movement than non-violence and integration but that seems to be the part of history with which mainstream society has become most comfortable so that’s where much of the historical focus is placed. Not to mention little attention is paid to the various campaigns that occurred between the end of Reconstruction and the launch of the Civil Rights Movement.
Looking back at slavery through that lens, you realize that even when discussing resistance, often the focus is placed on enslaved people finding relief in religion and the afterlife. It ignores the reality that through the centuries there has been a long history of Black people taking calculated risks and fighting back where possible, even when they seemed certain to lose.
Throughout this history of slavery, there are multiple instances of Black people standing up for themselves. Early last year, I did a review of Negroes and the Gun in which I learned that while many people utilized non-violence as a tactic for protests during the Civil Rights Movement some owned and used guns in their private lives because they realized the importance of defending and protecting themselves. It wasn’t a passive movement as it’s often described and this was also the case during slavery.
Creating content over the last few years has led to a lot of conversations with other Black people. I was eager to learn more about Black history and had a sense then which has been proven over time that other people are also interested. Black people are open to learning this more in-depth and full-bodied history of Black people. Not just in America but around the world. But in mainstream history, there’s often picking and choosing of what stories to tell and how as well as ulterior motives to reinforce long-held beliefs.
Here you see in the establishment of America just how much of the foundation of its society especially with regards to economics was built on slavery. It’s wide-ranging as we see how that influenced the development of policy and laws. America’s founding fathers described themselves as fighting for their independence and freedom from colonial rule. But at the same time that they were fighting for their freedom they continued to hold Black people in bondage. The vast majority of the heralded group that brought forth a new democracy supposedly built on freedom and equality owned slaves. And that hypocrisy grounded in prioritizing money over people influenced the establishment of America.
Think of institutional racism, you can see the foundation of that system of racist oppression taking form at the very same time America was taking shape. At the very moment that the founding fathers were creating a democracy for themselves, they were balancing that with a system of bondage. Crafting documents to define economic and political freedom at the very same time they were reinforcing slavery.
Within a few years, after the colonies had taken shape, many of the Northern states had abolished slavery. But there’s a difference between freedom and equality. While you had this abolitionist movement brewing some of the abolitionists viewed Black people as having a right to freedom, especially on religious grounds. Yet, they did not think Black people should share the same rights as citizens. Thus they could advocate for abolition but the Bible didn’t say anything about treating Black people as equals.
You see this play out through other movements if you consider the period after the Civil War or even during the Civil Rights Movement. There are protests against killing or brutalizing Black people because that goes against God’s will. Yet it doesn’t mean that those activists also believe in granting access to equal opportunities or that a Black person should be on equal footing with them. Most people don’t mean harm to others harm and thus might advocate for the humanity of Black people. But the conversation is different when it’s about redistributing resources or having to compete for resources on a level playing field.
There’s also the reality that as with the founding fathers, some people are willing to compromise their principles for economic gain. They will readily put aside their principles or rationalize their supposed religious belief when they run counter to their economic interests. In large part, that’s where the foundation for the concept of race originated. If I want to exploit an individual for economic gain while claiming to be a Christian and at the same time advocating for my freedom then I have to come up with some kind of reasoning to explain why I should be able to ignore my religion’s principles to keep people in bondage.
Something that I hadn’t considered was the concept of a second Middle Passage. The first was the kidnapping and transport via the Atlantic of Africans to the Americas. The original colonies were mostly established along America’s east coast but the country began to expand geographically. The development of the cotton gin made it possible to more efficiently produce cotton, increasing its profitability as well as demand. And with that, there was also greater demand for more bodies to help produce cotton. Ties to Africa were broken generations before as Africans were enslaved and taken across the Middle Passage. Family bonds were broken as the descendants of those kidnapped Africans were forced to migrate into the developing deep South.
As a fan of photography, I love seeing old pictures. It wasn’t until a few years before my grandmother died that I saw pictures of my grandparents as young people. The fact that my grandparents had been young at some point was a revelation. Much less to watch Many Rivers To Cross and multiple real photos of enslaved people. It’s like they exist in your mind but how many people are alive now that have met an enslaved person? To see pictures of them as everyday people was just incredible.
It helped to further humanize stories like that of Margaret Walker and her two hours of freedom. Her escape with her children and the aftermath of her pursuit and capture spoke to her desperation. Most mothers would do anything for their children. Thus for a mother to attempt to end the lives of her children rather than having them live in bondage puts things in perspective.
For anyone that argues to the contrary, just imagine how terrible a person’s experience in slavery must have been for her as a mother to make such a decision. Imagine you as a mother, loving your children and feeling so compelled by your status and position in life to attempt to end their lives to protect them from suffering. One could only imagine the horrors that Walker must have seen and experienced for it to push her to such limits.
There are multiple examples here of the desperation of risking your life in the fight for freedom despite the low odds of success. But also being willing to take the lives of your children so that they might not have to live in bondage. Trying to give them what you see as a degree of freedom because you imagine death is preferable to the life you’re living. It puts into perspective just how terrible slavery was.
It’s not mentioned here but some schools of thought try to make it seem like Black people enslaved in America were better off as they benefited from leaving the unevolved “dark continent”. Is it any wonder that all things Black or African were regarded with scorn as being primitive? The documentary does show how in response to calls for abolition, attempts were made to portray slavery as a benevolent institution. A new version of “the White man’s burden” whereby maintaining control and a watchful eye over enslaved Black people, slave owners were doing them a favor. It promoted the idea that this charitable institution was granting progress to enslaved Black people in comparison to what they might have been on their own.
There is some good insight into the Underground Railroad as it helps to separate myths from reality. This is also the case with regards to the Civil War which was a vital period in the history of Black America. The events surrounding the Civil War are another subject where I compared what I learned in school to what I’ve learned elsewhere since. In school, I was taught that the Civil War was fought to free the slaves, and leading the charge was Abraham Lincoln, “the Great Emancipator”. These things are not true.
I’ve come to learn that the Civil War was fought to reunify the union and the enslaved being freed was a byproduct not a primary goal. Even the legend of the Great Emancipator himself was a farce, as Lincoln did not believe in equality between the races. Some point out that he had moral issues with slavery. Fine but when it came down to it, the Emancipation Proclamation did not free enslaved people in the slave-holding states that had remained with the Union. Abraham Lincoln only freed the slaves as a tactic aimed at weakening the Southern states that had seceded.
The Emancipation Proclamation had a huge caveat of applying to enslaved people behind enemy lines. As Lincoln and the Union army had no authority over what took place behind enemy lines, they had no means of enforcing emancipation at that point. Thus it rested with enslaved people to take their chances and run away to seek protection behind Union lines. And in doing this, the Union army was counting on reducing confederate resources and potentially putting formerly enslaved men to work not the families with wives and children in tow that often arrived.
Up to that point, the South seemed to be winning the war or at the very least sustaining itself in the fight. The Union was able to defeat the confederates but if things had gone their way a bit earlier, who’s to say when enslaved people would have been emancipated? Things worked out for the best in the long run as in the process enslaved people ran away from plantations seeking freedom. Black men were now also able to serve within the military which further helped to chart a path towards emancipation and freedom for all enslaved people.
Black people had played a role in wars dating back to the Revolutionary War but this group of veterans from the Civil War were especially important. The reality is that Black people were not freed during the Civil War but rather they ran to and fought for their freedom. Yet, look at the end of the Civil War during the period of Reconstruction where Black people were now free and pushing for inclusion in wider society. There was the reality that the rights they fought and sacrificed for were still being limited.
During Reconstruction there emerged a violent backlash against Black progress. Black people attempted to participate in government and achieve progress through working for themselves, establishing farms, businesses, etc. But that ended in the South when the Compromise of 1877 brought Reconstruction to a close. Black people had made a lot of sacrifices in an attempt to gain their freedom but looking at the aftermath many of those gains were not sustained. There is a quote by W.E.B. DuBois about Black people emerging from slavery spending a moment in the sun of freedom only to be forced back into a new type of slavery.
There was an upswing in lynchings which were racially motivated acts of terrorism targeting Black people. The aim was to implement a new version of the system of fear oppression that had been created under slavery. And with that, you had the rise of one of my heroines, Ida B. Wells-Barnett. In addition to the physical attempt to dominate Black people, there was a psychological aspect as well that relied on imagery.
When other nations were beginning to abolish slavery America had to provide some kind of justification for why it was continuing the institution. They built on the early idea that enslaved people were somehow benefiting from the civilizing influence of slave masters. And as the Jim Crow era replaced Reconstruction there emerged these racist images that depicted Black babies as alligator bait and cartoons of Black people with enlarged stereotypical traits and facial features. The physical and psychological sides of this effort were intended to perpetuate a system of Black people as inferior, thus promoting white supremacy.
A constant theme that is present in looking at this chronological history is the effort made over centuries to thwart any attempts at Black progress. It’s kind of like throughout American history whenever Black people take a step forward the racist power structure implements some plan to force us two steps back. But there is still power and grit in persevering despite the odds and everything stacked against you.
Black people emerged from slavery and began trying to build new lives for themselves with and without help from the federal government. But Reconstruction ended and newly freed Black people were abandoned by the federal government to survive against an enemy that intended to force them into what seemed like a new form of the old slave society. Black people tried to push forward and improve their lives as well as the lives of their descendants. Some remained in the South while others migrated to cities in the North such as Harlem and Chicago or Los Angeles in the West. There are great leaps forward such as the Harlem Renaissance but they are followed by tremendous setbacks like the Great Depression.
World War I emerged as an opportunity for Black people to achieve progress by serving in the military. As with the Civil War, there was hope that in return for their sacrifice Black people would become full citizens in society and reap some of the benefits and recognition that should entail. There were gains but as always there was also backlash. It’s just another instance of this constant push and pull of struggling to make progress climbing the ladder of society only to be pushed back down.
To be honest, I found the earlier parts of the documentary a lot more interesting as those aspects of Black history are less frequently discussed. But as Many Rivers To Cross moved closer to the present it explained the development of the Civil Rights Movement and how it coincided with and arguably benefited from the rise of mass media. With radio but especially television, activists were able to show the world what Black people were enduring in the South. At that time there were only a few networks so broadcasting could help you reliably reach millions of people.
It wasn’t that Black people hadn’t been agitating, advocating, and organizing for decades but rather that mass media made it easier to spread the message. With more attention, it motivated more people to become active and staging mass protests brought more attention. It created a highly effective feedback loop. And thus activists learned to do things that would draw media attention which would get the attention of politicians.
There was a changing of the guards during World War II that saw America emerge as a superpower while other countries lost some influence on the world stage. Positioning itself as being the land of democracy while these images of violence in the South were being broadcasted around the world was a diplomatic problem. It highlighted the hypocrisy of America attempting to police the rest of the world while having a mess at home. The international glare of attention during this period is something that I’ve only recently come to consider as to why the federal government finally took action in the South. But, interestingly, things began to seemingly fall apart when attention began to shift to the more subtle but equally pervasive racism of the North.
I’ve seen and read quite a bit about the Civil Rights Movement at this point so many of the clips and speeches from this part of the documentary were familiar. Yet it gave a different feeling to see all of this Black history woven together into one cohesive story about Black America. And then right when you start to feel like things are headed in the right direction as happened at other points in history, there’s the pushback against the gains of the Civil Rights Movement.
There’s a discussion of President Richard Nixon and Michelle Alexander appears to discuss content that is covered in her book “The New Jim Crow”. We get an overview of how the Civil Rights Movement gave way to the Black Power / Black Self-love Movement. Seemingly at the very moment of Black people possibly overcoming, there was a rise in unemployment and substandard schools. And where society should have been dealing with those issues to make life better for not just Black people but for Americans as a whole, politicians sidestepped those difficult problems and shifted focus to crime and drugs. With that comes the crackdown on Black people’s progress in the form of more policing and policies that would gobble up entire swaths of Black communities while devastating whatever was left behind.
In the midst of that, Many Rivers To Cross reached back and explored how Black people in America had created not just art but various styles of music in its ghettos as a means of expressing the Black experience. I thought it was a nice way of wrapping up the documentary. Much of the last episode covers incidents that most of us are aware of because we’ve lived through that period. It covers the tragedy and travesty of Hurricane Katrina as well as the election of Barack Obama and the hope that we had finally overcome. But it also touches on the continued issues of police brutality, the shootings of unarmed black people, lack of economic opportunity, etc.
One of the benefits discussed is that from the Civil Rights Movement emerged an expanded Black middle class. But the reality is that it was not to the degree or scale of what we needed as a community to lift the majority of Black America out of economic strife, legal problems, etc. We see that to some degree harassment and brutality against Black people remain a problem centuries later. The unfortunate reality is that the more things change, the more they stay the same. That is the truth for continued efforts to thwart Black progress but also for Black people’s tenacious dedication to strive even in the face of seemingly insurmountable opposition.
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- Before the Mayflower [Book Review]
- Carter G. Woodson
- Jubilee [Book Review]
- The Underground Railroad Records [Book Review]
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