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
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.
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
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
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
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. …