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“The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, Part I”: A Review by Messiah Young

The following review was written by Messiah Young, a Chicago high school student, as part of Columbia College Chicago's Columbia Links journalism program for high school students. RogerEbert.com has partnered with the Chicago Urban League and Columbia Links to mentor these students and to give them a platform for their writing. Read more about the program here.


2.5 stars

With the help of Bank of America, PBS has condensed over 600 years of African-American History into six hours, with the final product being “The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross.” This documentary tells the story of African Americans from the 1600s to present day. The host, Henry Gates Jr., takes the audience on an enticing journey highlighting the hardships and high points of African Americans, focusing on slavery.

The film starts off with a brief history of the first black people in America. These men were free, and worked alongside the Spanish. Slavery was introduced later in the 1600s, with historians expressing that the first slaves were brought into Virginia from Africa.

"Many Rivers to Cross" reveals that before white people came to Africa, slavery was already popular in Africa. Gates goes to various countries in Africa and the citizens express that tribes went to war with each other in order to gain slaves. The people that sold and gathered slaves for the white Americans were in fact black Africans.

The horrendous 10-week journey from the Atlantic Coast of Africa to America was known as The Middle Passage. Hundreds of Africans were separated from not only their families, but their tribes. Africans from all of over the continent were forced to live with each other for weeks on end. These Africans were raped by white crew members, and thrown overboard to the sharks.

The First Africans in America set foot in Jamestown, Virginia. Here, they were sold for food and money. Slavery became more popular and there was a point where there were more Africans than people in America. As time progressed, Africans began to question their freedom. Slaves began to revolt, and wanted their rights and freedom. Haiti, previously a French country, was taken over by African slaves, and became the first black-run country in the Western Hemisphere.

The documentary goes on and focuses on the high points of African Americans, displaying the creative side of the African-American Culture including food and festivals.

PBS did an outstanding job with finding historians that could tell the story of African Americans in the most enticing way possible. The timeline that the film uses really captures the audiences’ attention and combines a well-balanced mix between fact and story.

"Many Rivers to Cross" is very informative, as historians from all over the world display their knowledge of African Americans. However, this segment of the film did not tell the full story of many historical events that took place in African American history. There are too many unanswered questions. But, overall, “Many Rivers to Cross” teaches the audience many valuable lessons about the African American experience and makes the audience appreciate culture and history. 


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