I watch television purely for its entertainment value. I like my programming stupid, obnoxious, and grossly irrelevant. When I’m sitting on the couch I like my frontal lobe to lapse into a sitcom rerun coma. Which might seem weird because on the whole I am a serious person. I avoid fluffy books. I am always trying to quit tabloid magazines. But if I’m going to watch TV, I want to be able to turn my brain off completely.
Yet last night when I was babysitting Harper “I Want to Wear My Purple Flip-Flops to Bed” June, I could find nothing worthless on TV. Therefore I was forced to watch something good. And it turned out to be really good.
Have you guys heard of PBS? PBS. . .Pretty Bitching Shows. Last night African American Lives 2 was on. Besides making me fall in love with Chris Rock in a way I never thought I could (maybe my newfound infatuation has something to do with the little hat he was wearing. The bbf has a similar hat that also makes me wild. Sometimes I borrow it and expect strangers to fall in love with me. But it doesn’t seem to work the same way for girls.), the AALives2 special made me forget that I might be missing some reality show or crime drama on CBS.
Henry Louis Gates narrates the series, which guest stars Don Cheadle, Tina Turner, Morgan Freeman, Chris Rock, and Maya Angelou, among others. Granted, I tuned in at the end of the program, but here is the gist of it: Gates (I love that he’s a Harvard professor and his family still calls him “Skip”) presents a handful of famous African Americans with their own family histories, copiously researched back to the days of the Civil War. On camera, Gates reveals to his guests who their great great grandparents were; he shows them their roots. The institution of slavery and its omnipresent aftermath deprived millions of people of their histories. For Gates to give them back, even if only to a select few, is deeply moving. Especially to a girl who hasn’t had a drink for a week and is consequently an emotional rollercoaster.
I have two highlights I want to write about, so don’t read any further if you are immediately going to order the DVDs. But there are plenty more highlights in the series, to be sure.
1) Gates tells Chris Rock, who wears his little hat so endearingly, that one of his ancestors became a North Carolina state legislator after emancipation. This is the same ancestor who fought for his freedom in an all-black regiment in the Civil War.
In his heartbreaking response to the news that his great great grandfather was a state legislator, Rock says, “Until I lucked into a comedy club at, you know, age 20, just on a whim, I assumed I would pick up things for white people for the rest of my life. . . .If I’d known this, it would have taken away the inevitability that I was going to be nothing.”
Rock says that when he was a kid, he wanted to be President of the United States. That’s all he wanted to be. But he was born just days after Malcolm X was assassinated, and in that violent climate, what mother wants her black son to grow up to be a powerful leader? Yet if Rock’s Brooklyn family had not had its history wiped out by racist revision, maybe he would have had the self assurance to pursue politics. But he did all right for himself. It’s just crushing to imagine all the young people who don’t succeed as a direct result of being deprived of their histories.
2) Gates tells Morgan Freeman about the legacy of his great great grandfather, a white slaveowner, and his great great grandmother, a slave on his plantation. Working only from census and land records, Gates determines that these great great grandparents stayed together for decades after emancipation. They raised seven children in the same household. The former slaveowner deeded land to his “illegitimate” sons. And then, for one last kick in the nuts, Gates shows Freeman a recent photo of the gravestones of his great great grandparents. The two stones are side by side, surrounded by those of the children. And on the gravestone, the great great grandmother shares her partner’s last name.
I can’t make this stuff up.
And it’s not just a show on PBS. The African American Lives project is ongoing, with educational outreach, some deal with Oprah, and a companion book to the series. I only wish someone would mass-produce Chris Rock’s devastating little hat.