IN 1756, AN eleven-year-old African boy named Olaudah Equiano was kidnapped by slavers and taken to their ship. "I was persuaded," he later wrote, "that I had gotten into a world of bad spirits. . when I looked around the ship and saw a copper pot boiling I no longer doubted my fate, and quite overpowered with horror, I fainted."
Equiano's story is one of many that comes to life in a new documentary produced at WGBH in Boston for The American Experience. Africans in America, a four-part documentary exploring the role of African Americans in the economic and social development of the United States, airs October 19-22 on PBS. The series documents the lives and struggles of slaves and free Africans living in the United States from colonial times until the Civil War.
Work on Africans in America began more than five years ago when producers perceived a need to explore the lives of Africans in early America.
"There hasn't been a documentary history on slavery from its origins," explains executive producer Orlando Bagwell. Africans in America is the first documentary to look at slavery "from its origins in the nation to abolition."
The four episodes of the series progress chronologically. The first details the slow growth of slavery, its impact on domestic and international trade, and its effects on both African and American society. It tells the story of Equiano s journey to America by way of the harrowing Middle Passage. The second episode examines the American Revolution through the eyes of George Washington and Venture Smith, a slave who bought his family's and his own freedom. The third, entitled "Brotherly Love," depicts the time following the Revolution, exploring the lives of African Americans in Philadelphia. The final episode tracks the progression of abolitionist and antiabolitionist movements in the thirty years leading up to the Civil War.
"This period of American history is probably the most researched," Bagwell says. "Among scholars and historians, it's very popular. The difference is, among the American public, the slavery period is not well understood, or even discussed." Africans in America attempts to bridge that gap. "For a medium like television to present it," Bagwell explains, "brings the history of slavery to the public in a way it's never been shown before."
Africans in America examines five different themes: the impact of African skills on the developing nation, the societal effects of the institution of slavery in North America, the evolution of American attitudes toward race, the struggle of Africans in America for freedom and equality, and the influence of African cultural traditions. The story is told in the words of the people who lived through the events and through interviews with scholars.
The series begins in the early days of colonial America. The colonies were established as profit-making ventures and many British settlers were ill prepared for the task of carving out settlements in the frontier.
Initially, Africans brought to America worked side by side with white indentured servants at the same tasks. Blacks and whites cleared the land, planted and tended crops, and managed the daily business of the plantations.
The African slaves began their work when they were young, and were taught obedience from the beginning. Venture Smith detailed his own childhood in his memoirs:
I was pretty much employed in the house, carting wood for the household guests. My behavior had been as yet obedient. Then I began to have hard tasks imposed on me or be rigorously punished. I was about nine years old.
As the colonies and plantations grew, landowners became dependent on African labor. By 1700, the number of blacks in South Carolina was greater than the number of whites. African slaves became valuable for the skills they held before enslavement. Soon, Africans were woodworkers, tailors, blacksmiths, goldsmiths, longshoremen, and even the pilots who guided ships in and out of harbors. …