`Slavery' Series Looks at Roots of America's Racial Problems

By McAlister, Nancy | The Florida Times Union, October 19, 1998 | Go to article overview

`Slavery' Series Looks at Roots of America's Racial Problems


McAlister, Nancy, The Florida Times Union


Many of the names and places are familiar in the new

documentary Africans in America: America's Journey through

Slavery. The cast of characters includes abolitionist John

Brown, publisher William Lloyd Garrison and slave rebel Nat

Turner.

But the four-part special, which begins at 8 tonight on PBS,

has the luxury of time and scope to delve more deeply into the

struggle that shaped current views about race in this country.

Viewers who tune in will also learn about less well-known

participants in the quest for freedom.

Among them:

John Punch, an African, was among three servants in 1640 who

ran away from a Virginia plantation. Captured and returned, the

state courts sentenced Punch, along with a Scotsman and a

Dutchman, to be whipped. A year was added to the indentures of

his comrades. Punch, however, was sentenced to "serve his said

master or his assigns for the time of his natural life.

Jeremy, an Angolan, led a group of South Carolina slaves trying

to escape to St. Augustine, where the Spanish had offered

freedom to runaway slaves in 1739. In what became known as the

Stono Rebellion, the rebels killed all whites they encountered

before their eventual massacre.

In 1730, Venture Smith was one of 41,000 Africans brought to

the colonies as slaves. In 1765, he bought himself out of

slavery. In 1773, he purchased his wife, which meant his entire

family was free. At the time of his death in 1805, Smith was one

of more than 100,000 free black people living in the United

States. There were still 800,000 slaves residing in the new

nation.

Africans in America asks tough questions in its examination of

the historical roots of today's issues of race and equality. How

did America build a new nation based on principles of liberty

and equality while justifying the existence of slavery? Did

American slavery and freedom have to exist side by side in the

nation? Focus begins in Jamestown in 1607 and ends with first

rumblings of the Civil War.

Angela Bassett serves as narrator of the special, which

continues at 8 p.m. tomorrow through Thursday. Also featured are

the voices of Andre Braugher, Avery Brooks, William Hurt, Brent

Jennings and Carl Lumbly, among others. In a production style

perfected by Ken Burns documentaries, the program uses

first-person narratives and interviews with historians and

descendants.

One of the contributors is Gen. Colin Powell, former chairman

of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who speaks about the role of the

military in the lives of early black Americans. Another is Karen

Hughes White, descendent of Wormley and Ursula Hughes, slaves of

Thomas Jefferson.

Orlando Bagwell, producer of Africans in America, worked with

his team for three years in researching journals, letters,

paintings and photographs. The goal was to create something

visually original and historically sweeping, he told TV critics

at this summer's press tour.

Coinciding with the telecast is an educational outreach

targeting youth and teachers in 17 cities. A companion book

published by Harcourt Brace will combine a historical narrative

with 12 short stories written by Charles Johnson, author of

this year's novel Dreamer (Scribner, $23) and the 1990 National

Book Award winner for his novel Middle Passage (Plume, $11.95).

Bagwell said he's frequently asked why he's focusing on the

pain and suffering of slavery in this film. The answer is that

through an understanding of our past comes an opportunity for

growth and healing.

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