Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Slavery As ‘Innovation’ and Other Provocative Ideas: What I Learned From Henry Louis Gates’s ‘Many Rivers to Cross’ - The Daily Beast

Even if you accept that race is a social construct, separated from biology, it’s difficult to deal with it as a creation. Humans are tribal, and it feels natural to think that humanity has always been eager to categorize on the basis of skin color.

 If there’s anything Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, Jr., accomplishes with “The Black Atlantic,” the first episode of The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross—a new documentary mini-series that begins on PBS Tuesday at 8 p.m. ET—it’s to show that this view is an illusion. That is, in addition to inaugurating a broad history of black people—“the full 500 years of American history,” he says—the beginning of the series also gives viewers a valuable crash course in the history of race as an idea that was built.

 The episode begins with three stories from early America. “The first known African in America came here with Spanish explorers in 1513,” explains Gates, as the camera sweeps over the semi-tropical landscape of modern-day Florida.

“His name was Juan Guarido. He was free, and he left his mark on the New World.” Guardio fought with the conquistador Hernán Cortés in Aztec Mexico, and traveled to California to join the Spanish search for gold. Estevanico, or “Esteban the Moor,” arrived on the continent in 1534. One of four survivors of a Spanish expedition gone wrong, he served as a “guide and translator” for his companions as they walked the landscape of today’s Texas. Esteban, however, was a slave.