Henry Louis Gates Jr. discusses documentary

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Photo by Kathryn Crandall.

As Henry Louis Gates Jr. ’73 arrived at Yale in 1969, the first class of women were walking through the University’s cast-iron gates, and dozens of black students were taking seats alongside white classmates in unprecedented numbers.

According to Gates, coming to Yale as part of the surge of black students opened up a world increasingly far away from his hometown of Piedmont, W.Va., which had a population of 2,000.

This Saturday, Gates returned to Yale as part of the Peabody Museum of Natural History’s annual Martin Luther King, Jr. program. Following an introduction from Director of the Afro-American Cultural Center Rodney Cohen, Gates spoke briefly on his newest project — a six-part PBS documentary series titled “The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross,” which was partially screened at the event — and on his time as an undergraduate at Yale in a time of radical social change.

While studying history at Yale, Gates said he was particularly inspired by William S. McFeely, a professor who taught a course on African-American history. Though he and others were initially confused as to how a white professor could teach to an almost exclusively black audience, Gates said, his desire to become a scholar was “ignited by this white guy who taught African-American history.”

After graduation, Gates studied English at Cambridge University. He later taught at Yale, Cornell, Duke and Harvard, where he currently directs the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research.

Saturday’s event focused mainly on Gates’ recent documentary project, which takes viewers through 500 years of African-American history in the United States. Although he has no formal training as a film producer, Gates said he contacted 40 historians to unearth the most crucial elements of black history in America. Collectively, the historians responded with 1,000 stories, 72 of which were used for the series.

Gates acknowledged that the series deals with African-American history in a sweeping manner, but said the pace does not detract from the project’s overall purpose.

“I made this so no one can use its absence as an excuse not to teach African-American history,” Gates said. “No one had done this before.”

The first episode of the series, ”The Black Atlantic,” begins with the narrative of plantation slavery and the Atlantic slave trade. The series progresses through slavery in America, the Civil War, the Jim Crow era and the civil rights movement. The final episode, “A More Perfect Union,” examines the Black Power movement and ends with the election of Barack Obama.

Gates, who narrates the film, characterized this historical narrative as going from “the slave ship to the White House.”

Following the screening, a panel of members of Yale’s African-American community offered their insights into race relations and America today. Patricia Okonta ’15, president of the Black Student Alliance at Yale and the only student panelist, spoke to the disadvantages automatically faced by minorities.

“I think the evening really captured the idea that institutional discrimination and structural racism really has no bounds,” Okonta said. “And when you add poverty and a lack of education into the mix, you find yourself in an abyss of struggle. We need to work together so everyone has an opportunity to lift themselves from this perpetuated problem.”

The panel addressed segregation within the black community, as well as controversy over whether racism in American ended with the election of the first black president. Towards the end of the event, Kathleen Cleaver, an activist in the Black Panther Party who is also featured in the documentary, spoke as well.

Ben Marrow ’17 said the event struck a personal chord.

“For me, it raised a question of identity and whether that is grounded in geography, history or socioeconomics,” Marrow said. “Gates gave an interesting take on whether there could be a proper unity both within the black community and between the black community and minorities.”

Gates is the first African American to receive the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Fellowship.

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