By James L, Stroud, Jr.
Professor Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, Jr. (seated front left) and the Merengue singers in the Dominican Republic in Black in Latin America -Photo courtesy of PBS
Over the years and in a series of documentaries, Harvard University Scholar/Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. has taken PBS television viewers on several historic journeys into the lives of Black people. These journeys include the PBS series African American Lives (2006), Oprah’s Roots (2007), African American Lives 2 (2008), Looking for Lincoln (2009), and most recently Faces of America (2010).
Professor Gates is back with a new four-part series about Black people entitled Black in Latin America. The series introduces viewers to the faces and voices of the descendants of Africans in six Latin American countries: Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Brazil, Mexico and Peru.
Asked to comment on this new project, Gates said, “I conceived of this as a trilogy of documentary series that would mimic the patterns of the triangle trade. There would be a series on Africa, which was called Wonders of the African World, in 1999. And then there would be a series on Black America called America Behind the Color Line in 2004. And then the third part of the triangle trade was, of course, South America and the Caribbean.
“The triangle trade was Africa, South America, and the continental United States and Europe. That’s how I conceived of it. I’ve been thinking about it since before 1999. But the first two were easier to get funding for. Everyone knows about Black people from Africa; everyone knows about the Black American community.
“But surprisingly, and this is why the series is so important, not many people realize how ‘Black’ South America is. So of all the things I’ve done, it was the most difficult to get funded, and it is one of the most rewarding because it is so counter-intuitive; it’s so full of surprises. And I’m very excited about it.”
Many of the surprises that Gates unveils are nuances not typically offered in the everyday lessons in American classrooms about the rest of the world, especially where people linked to the African Diaspora are concerned. Gates highlights interesting facts like these: From 1502 to 1866, 12.5 million slaves survived the Middle Passage to the New World. Only 450,000 of those 12.5 million arrived into America, while five million were dropped off in Brazil.
In fact, according to the way America counts an individual as Black (the “one-drop rule”), Brazil has the second-highest Black population in the world. Brazil’s Black population grew so much that it became too much for the Brazilian government. So according to Gates, between 1872 and 1975 the Brazilian government made it a conscious policy to “Whiten” the country by importing close to 5.5 million Europeans and Middle Eastern immigrants.
In each region where Gates journeys, this four-part series highlights the common thread that Black people share on race and identity, as well as where they “split hairs,” so to speak. The series begins April 19 on PBS television. The following are the series titles with a brief description. All showings are 9-10 pm our time.
Tuesday, April 19: Haiti & the Dominican Republic: An Island Divided
In the Dominican Republic, Professor Gates explores how race has been socially constructed in a society whose people reflect centuries of intermarriage, and how the country’s troubled history with Haiti informs notions about racial classification. In Haiti, Professor Gates tells the story of the birth of the first-ever Black republic and finds out how the slaves’ hard-fought liberation over Napoleon Bonaparte’s French Empire became a double-edged sword.
Tuesday, April 26: Cuba: The Next Revolution
In Cuba, Professor Gates finds out how the culture, religion, politics and music of this island are inextricably linked to the huge amount of slave labor imported to produce its enormously profitable 19th century sugar industry, and how race and racism have fared since Fidel Castro’s Communist revolution in 1959.
Tuesday, May 3: Brazil: A Racial Paradise?
In Brazil, Professor Gates delves behind the façade of Carnival to discover how this “rainbow nation” is waking up to its legacy as the world’s largest slave economy.
Tuesday, May 10: Mexico & Peru: The Black Grandma in the Closet
In Mexico and Peru, Professor Gates explores the almost unknown history of the significant numbers of Black people brought to these countries as early as the 16th and 17th centuries — the two countries together received far more slaves than did the United States — and the worlds of culture that their descendants have created in Vera Cruz on the Gulf of Mexico, the Costa Chica region on the Pacific, and in and around Lima, Peru.
For more information, go to the PBS website at www.PBS.org.
James L. Stroud welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.