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Black American history gets 500-year rewind in PBS series

By Mary Milliken

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A new U.S. television documentary series reaches back 500 years to demonstrate how America's black history contained some unsettling nuances and uncomfortable truths from the start.

The six-part series, "The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross," which premieres on PBS on Tuesday, opens with Juan Garrido, a free black man who was among the Spanish conquistadors who arrived in Florida in 1513. He is followed by the first known slave, named Esteban, 13 years later.

For Henry Louis Gates Jr., the Harvard scholar who conceived and presents the documentary, Garrido and Esteban set the tone for the series.

"We are showing that there never was one black experience, that even from the beginning there was a free black experience and a slave black experience," said Gates.

The series, two years in the making, covers the 500 years from Garrido to Barack Obama, the nation's first black president, in 2013.

It coincides with a year of intense debate over what it means to be black in America, sparked by historical and current events.

This year saw the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech and the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation ending slavery.

But it also saw George Zimmerman acquitted of murder for the shooting of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin, and a U.S. Supreme Court decision invalidating part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

A MORE COMPLEX COMMUNITY

Gates, who has produced previous series for PBS like "Finding Your Roots" and "Black in Latin America," said the conversation on blacks in America is oversimplified, with people talking "about the black community as if it were a village."

He said that the series aims to show the layers and differences among blacks in America and underline that "probably since the first slaves came in 1526, black people have been arguing with each other about how the hell to get out of here."

Gates goes to Africa in the first episode to illustrate that the overwhelming majority of slaves shipped to the New World were captured and sold by African kingdoms, not Europeans.

He finds a village in Sierra Leone where people acknowledge that their ancestors made fortunes selling slaves.

Of the 11 million slaves who came from Africa to the New World, just 388,000 ended up in what is now the United States. Their descendants number 42 million today.

Throughout the series, he highlights the stories of some 70 blacks, like Priscilla, a 10-year-old slave who arrived orphaned from Africa to work in the rice plantations of South Carolina, and Harry Washington, a slave who worked in General George Washington's stables but then fought with the British because he saw little hope of freedom in the founding fathers.

Later the series visits notable blacks like former Secretary of State Colin Powell and Ruby Bridges, who at age 6 attended an otherwise all-white elementary school in New Orleans in 1960. That event was commemorated in Norman Rockwell's painting of a girl in a white dress walking with her marshal escorts.

Bridges spent a year in class alone with her teacher and did not know about the famous painting until she was in her late teens.

"Seeing that painting made me realize it was an event that changed the face of education across the country," Bridges said.

(Editing by Piya Sinha-Roy and Xavier Briand)

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