Wednesday, February 01, 2006

5 New Black Men + African American Lives on PBS

A longtime friend of mine, Robert Penn, a video artist, is part of a group show, 5 New Black Men, at the M Gallery in Harlem (Francks DeCeus is a good friend of another friend of mine, and a very talented painter). The show opens next Saturday and runs through April 29.

M Gallery is located at: 123 W 135th St, New York, NY 10030, (212) 234-4106


I've been meaning to post about African American Lives, the Henry Louis Gates, Jr.-hosted program beginning tonight on PBS that traces the family histories of several high-profile African-Americans, including Oprah Winfrey, Whoopi Goldberg, T.D. Jakes, Sarah Lawrence-Lightfoot, Ben Carson, Quincy Jones, Ben Jamison, and Chris Tucker. Though I was initially somewhat skeptical given that the program was focusing only the family histories of élite figures, I've found tonight's episodes utterly riveting. I've studied American, African-American and African history and am familiar with the general outlines of our stories in the United States, but it is still fascinating to hear these particular family histories revealed, which parallel the chief currents of American history.

Tonight's show focused mostly on post-Civil War histories (though Gates himself learned quite a bit he hadn't realized about his own family, dating back to the 1820s), from the emancipation period into the early 20th century. It explored many of the aporias, gaps and lacunas in each of the profilees' knowledge of their family backgrounds (Oprah hadn't realized that her grandfather Winfrey in Mississippi had owned 250 acres of land, which he held onto tenaciously despite the constant threat of violence, the discriminatory laws, and economic pressures, and even moved a school for the small town's Black children onto his land, and her great-grandfather, also a farmer, had been a teacher as well).

Another interesting aspect, especially for Gates's personal story, was the tension between folk history and the "truths" genetic testing appears to offer. What does the zeal for genetic verification tell us, and what truths does it ultimately reveal? Tomorrow night, the show promises to explore the experience of the figures' ancestors during the era of slavery, and in some cases, trace, through public documents and genetics, the stories even further back. One of the best aspects of the show is how Gates and the historians working with him are constantly contextualizing the experiences of the figures he traces, situating them within a complex, historicized yet richly evoked lifeworld--our ancestors' lifeworld.


Thinking of our ancestors' lifeworld and our own, today, the first day of Black History Month, is also the 46th anniversary of the first sit-in, which occurred in segregated Greensboro, North Carolina.

Quoting directly from Lisa Cozzens's African-American History site:

On February 1, 1960, Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain, David Richmond, and Ezell Blair, Jr., walked into an F.W. Woolworth Company store in Greensboro, North Carolina, purchased some school supplies, then went to the lunch counter and asked to be served. They knew they probably would not be. The four freshmen at the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College were black, and this lunch counter was segregated. Still, as one of the students told UPI, "We believe, since we buy books and papers in the other part of the store, we should get served in this part." [17] When they were forced to leave as the store closed, they still had not been served.

The next day, more students showed up, news services publicized the acts of defiance, a New York representative of the Congress on Racial Equality headed down to organize more sit-ins, and members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference spread the information far and wide, launching a wave of sit-ins that played a key role in the desegregation of public accommodations across the Jim Crow South and in other parts of the country.


  1. The Harlem show looks great John, i'll be sure to check it out...

  2. I caught "African-American Lives" last night also -- it was a great documentary! I think the one thing that caught me the most was when Gates asked Whoopi Goldberg if any of her relatives told her stories of her ancestors and she replied "No, they just didn't talk about it; we weren't a talking-kind of family." That part to me was more startling than the DNA test and result.

    All in all, a great series. I've got to get the DVD.

  3. Did you see this review of the series from Troy Duster?
    Deep Roots and Tangled Branches

  4. Hey,

    Below are some links to a video done on the African American Men & Boys Conference that was held in Austin, Texas. It's a great piece done by the TV show "Docubloggers" on the PBS station KLRU in Austin. Enjoy!