On Tuesday, after much anticipation, the first of a six-part series, written and presented by Henry Louis Gates Jr., aired on PBS nationwide. “The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross” features a fascinating documentary about the history of African Americans, from the roots of slavery to-date. Gates as always, gives the narrative an edge unlike other documentaries before, and applies a much broader perspective, providing details that may be largely unknown to the mainstream audience. Gates connects the dots, from the moment Africans became slaves, to the experience and transformation those slaves endured in their journey to eventually become African Americans. The documentary bridges together ancestors and descendants, Africa and America, Sierra Leone and South Carolina, Haiti and Virginia, almost removing the ocean that divides both sides of the Atlantic.
In the first episode, one could not help but notice the overwhelming mention of Sierra Leone throughout the hour long program. To many non-Sierra Leonean viewers who are familiar with the name, it may have been startling at the least, as over the years the name seemed to have become synonymous with blood diamonds; from the portrayal of the country’s civil conflict in the movie “Blood Diamond” starring Leonardo Dicaprio. Slightly over a decade of tragedy however, isn’t enough to remove the historical value the country has. Such historical value, although several books written by notable scholars exist, rarely get covered in the mainstream. Much of the historical discourse takes place among exclusive circles of historians and related focus groups such as museums, historical archives, and some Sierra Leonean families.
It was refreshing to see African American history in general, and Sierra Leone’s role in it specifically, presented to such a large-scale audience, on a well-known media platform, by a respected Scholar. It not only confirms the historical value of Sierra Leone history to world history, it also makes it unavoidable to understand the emergence of the African Diaspora across the Atlantic without considering the country’s role over the centuries to the various stages of the African’s experience within the past few hundred years.