[Africans in America: America's Journey through Slavery]

By Girling, Alison | Teach, May/June 2000 | Go to article overview

[Africans in America: America's Journey through Slavery]


Girling, Alison, Teach


Africans in America was a six-hour, four-part documentary series that first aired on PBS in the fall of 1998. It was heralded by the press as a television series not to be missed. Newsday Magazine featured Africans in America as its cover story, "Slavery Revisited, PBS' Africans in America is TVs first full-scale documentary to examine this traumatic part of our past." Time Magazine claimed that viewers would come away with "...a vivid understanding of how slavery flourished in the land of freedom and what costs it imposed." At the centre of the series lies the paradox of American slavery, how could a nation built on the principles of liberty and equality justify the existence of racial slavery?

Africans in America was a lavish production. With a price tag of $6.5 million for the series, production crews filmed on location across 12 states and three continents. Actress Angela Bassett provided the narration, and the voices of actors Andre Baugher, Avery Brooks, William Hurt, amongst others, were also featured. The history of slavery was presented through a combination of dramatic recreations, historical commentaries, interviews with descendants, and masses of documentary evidence collected from archives across the world including letters, legislation, diaries, graphic illustrations, paintings, commercial ledgers, inventories and autobiographies.

The episodes are chronologically arranged. Part I 1450-1750, "The Terrible Transformation" challenges old notions of the origins of slavery. When the first Africans arrived in Virginia in the early 17th century they joined other indentured European slaves. This was true across the 13 colonies. Racial slavery was constructed as a codified institution built by successive pieces of legislation over several decades. In Part II, 1750-1805 "Revolution", the lives of George Washington and Venture Smith, are brought into contrast. Smith was an African who had been captured and brought to America as a slave but managed to buy himself and his family out of slavery. Washington was a fourth generation American and wealthy Virginian plantation owner. He was reluctant to allow slaves into the Continental Army, and although they were promised freedom at the end of the war, few slaves were freed. Washington presided over the Constitutional Convention that ratified a Constitution that codified slavery. Part III, 1791-1831 "Brotherly Love" examines the aftermath of the Revolution in Philadelphia. Blacks, inspired by the "Declaration of Independence," claimed that the principles of freedom and liberty should apply to all men, not merely whites. As the anti-slavery movement of whites and blacks was building, there were attempts to apply science to the study of race, and thereby justify racism through scientific arguments. Part IV, 1831-1865 "Judgment Day" examines the conflicts that arose in the period of western expansions. Abolitionists wanted blacks to be free. Northerners, members of the "Free Soil" movement, resented competing with Southern plantation workers for the use of the western lands. The Southern plantation owners wanted to build a prosperous future in the west but their future depended on the slave workers.

The CD-ROM Africans in American is actually a copy of the web site (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia). It is intended as a resource for educators who do not have a reliable connection to the Internet. To work with the CD- ROM, it is necessary to have an Internet browser such as Explorer 4.0 or Netscape Navigator 3.0+ loaded on your desktop. Surprisingly, there are no multimedia elements such as video or audio clips on either the CD or the web site. Rather, the CD provides a wealth of documentary resources, extensive lesson plans, questions and activities that relate to the issues raised by the four programs.

Documents can be accessed in a number of ways. Select a section, for example "The Terrible Transformation," and work through a narrative that presents the early history of American slavery through descriptions of people and events.

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