Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2008

African American Lives

By David Luhrssen
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Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is perhaps the foremost historian of the African-American experience, both as a scholar and public intellectual. His latest endeavor under the latter heading is to host “African American Lives 2,” premiering 8 p.m., Feb. 6 on MPTV-10.

Using family trees of the famous and the less known as a starting point, Gates investigates black life in America over four episodes. He begins with the Great Migration that brought millions of Southern blacks to the North after World War I and works backwards through the Reconstruction and the Civil War, the colonial period and the Middle Passage across the Atlantic to Africa.

In episode one, Gates unearths the family roots of writer Maya Angelou, comedian Chris Rock, Olympic runner Jackie Joyner-Kersee, theologian Peter Gomes and others. Much of the spadework was done by Gates, who reveals many small and remarkable stories from families that often pointedly closed the door on their past. Gates found ancestors unjustly convicted of murder. He explores the story of New York Times literary critic Anatol Broyard, who “passed” for white until shortly before his death in 1990, separating himself from family and heritage in order to experience the life he chose for himself.

Given what Southern blacks escaped from, it’s little wonder that sadness permeates the stories along with resilience and hope.

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