In a new four-hours series, “Black America Since MLK: And Still I Rise,” Henry Louis Gates Jr. explores the last fifty years in African American history. The PBS series will be broadcast on Nov. 15 and 22 at 8 p.m. (Check local listings), then be available online for streaming.
The MLK is, of course, Martin Luther King Jr. was born in 1929 and assassinated on April 4, 1968. The Baptist minister and social activist was a leader in the Civil Rights Movement from the mid-1950s.
The title makes a reference to Maya Angelou’s third volume of poetry, “And Still I Rise,” which was published in 1978. The poetry collection’s title verse is “Still I Rise,” a poem about history and identity.
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may tread me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I‘ll rise.
Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I‘ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.
Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I‘ll rise.
Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.
Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I‘ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own back yard.
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I‘ll rise.
Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I‘ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?
Out of the huts of history’s shame
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I‘m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
The series is a personal look at black culture by the 66-year-old American literary critic, teacher, historian and filmmaker, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Gates has been the writer and executive producer of the PBS series, “Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. since 2012. He was also educated on the East Coast, attending Yale where he received his Ph.D. He is the director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard.
There’s a decided bias toward the East Coast and the South, but this is Gate’s personal experience of the times. So while the first African American mayor of a predominately white U.S. town was in California (1888) and the first African American mayor of a U.S. city was also in California (Richmond in 1964) and the first African American elected mayor of a major city was New Jersey, the documentary looks at the first African American elected mayor of a major Southern City, Maynard Jackson of Atlanta in 1973. There were others such as Tom Bradley, who was the first African American mayor of a major Western City, but Bradley isn’t even mentioned by name.
The four hours is broken up into chapters: Out of the Shadows, Move on Up, Keep Your Head Up and Touch the Sky. Gates tells us, “My grandparents were colored, my parents were Negros and me, I‘m black.” Blacks or African Americans have increasingly been able to define who they are labeled, they are now “visible in every facet of daily life” but they still face “harsh inequalities,” so Gates asks: “How do we still have to march to get our rights?” and “How did we some so far and yet have so far to go?”
“Out of the Shadows” begins in 1965 with a clip from “American Bandstand.” Gates was 14, growing up in West Virginia and trying to learn a new dance. Yet in March 7, 1965, peaceful marchers seeking voting rights in Selma, Alabama were viciously attacked. In that year the Voting Act was signed, Watts Riots broke out five days later
Then five days later, Watts Riots exploded in Los Angeles. “It’s so easy to think racism was a Southern problem…as opposed to a national problem,” Cornel West comments. Even MLK was surprised at what he found in Watts.
The documentary looks at Stokely Carmichael and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and how the black panther became a symbol for black America and black power. Carmichael, unlike King, wasn’t as committed to non-violence and so black power wasn’t supported by everyone, including MLK. Another leader, Malcolm X took up the banner of black power before, he too was silenced in 1965. Gates notes how the changes were most visible in music and on TV. Think of “Soul Train,” “I Spy” and “Star Trek.”
Gates was one of a large group of black students entering Yale, a beneficiary of Affirmative Action. At the same time, Yale was admitting a large group of women.
Part two looks at the results of voting rights as an increased number of black people were educated and entering different professions. Gates looks at Maynard Jackson becoming the mayor of Atlanta and how it signaled a major shift in American politics. “The Jeffersons” brought out different images of blacks, including a racist black man, George Jefferson.
Black feminists and black women writers (e.g. Toni Morrison and Alice Walker) rose to prominence. Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s home run record and received death threats. Bussing attempted to desegregate public education. Jesse Jackson revived the “spirit of the Civil Rights movement,” allowing some to think that a black man could be president some day. But it was also a time of “white flight,” Allen Bakke and accusations of reverse racism, and the rise of hip hop artists like Public Enemy.
“Keep Your Head Up,” the third segment, includes an interview with Oprah Winfrey who was openly personal and vulnerable in a way that “felt neither black nor white neither Asian nor Hispanic.” She was one of many black crossover superstars such as Bill Cosby, Michael Jackson, Prince and Michael Jordan. It was a time of black doctors, black lawyers, the first black billionaire (Robert Johnson) and a black Miss America (Vanessa Williams). It was also a time of drug dealers and Gates interviews a former crack cocaine dealer.
Besides drugs, there were other divisive incidents such as the confirmation of Clarence Thomas after the testimony of Anita Hill, the Los Angeles Riots, the trial of O.J. Simpson.
It was also a time of President Bill Clinton who told us we needed to take personal responsibility and that was also the message of Louis Farrakhan at the Million Man March on Washington, D.C. Yet is this internalized racism because “Were the problems we faced really of our own making?”
The last segment “Touch the Sky” was not available for press preview and likely covers the presidency of Barack Obama. Gates’ “Black America Since MLK: And Still I Rise” is an interesting, intellectual look at how quickly the U.S. culture has changed and yet how stubbornly racism toward blacks still persists. It does not seem to address the more complex problems of racism between blacks and whites and other ethnic groups as shown in the 2016 Oscar ceremonies that was heavily criticized for its portrayal of Asian Americans. While this might be covered in the last segment, there is no similar discussion in the first three segments. In today’s American society, the multicultural aspects of racism is something that needs to be confronted.
This PBS presentation will be broadcast on Nov. 15 and 22 at 8 p.m. (Check local listings), then be available online for streaming.