The roots of our racial identity Orlando Bagwell found his own family while doing research for 'Africans in America.' Others may find themselves in the PBS four-parter that starts tomorrow night.

October 18, 1998|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

Growing up in this part of the country, Orlando Bagwell knew that he was living in what had been the very center of the American slave trade. But he never fully appreciated what that meant until he was researching his newest PBS documentary, "Africans in America: America's Journey Through Slavery."

"Even when I was growing up, the word in my community was that most of the descendants of African people in some way or another lived in Virginia," says Bagwell, noting that the majority of Africans brought to America to be sold into slavery landed first in Virginia or Maryland. "We used to laugh at it, not really understanding what that meant. In fact, that makes a lot of sense, when you look at the number of Africans who passed through Virginia and were moved from Virginia to other parts of the country."

While researching the story of Anthony Johnson, one of the first Africans to win his freedom and become a landowner in the New World, Bagwell visited Virginia's Accomack County, on the peninsula that state shares with Maryland's Eastern Shore.

"A woman looked at me and said, 'You know, you're from around here,' " says Bagwell, 48, a native Baltimorean who moved from the city at age 15 and now lives in Boston. "I explained to her that I was from Baltimore. She asked me where I thought my family was from, and I said I'd heard they were from Virginia. ... She said, 'You know, your family lives over there, on that plantation not far from here down the road.'

"She took me to the plantation and showed me the place where, in fact, members of my family still live, and the descendants of the family who owned the plantation still live in the house. She took me to the record books and began to show me names in the record books that go back to the 1700s. I was quite taken and determined that I would go back and do a bit more investigation to find out about members of my family on my father's side."

Not every American is going to find so personal a connection to "Africans in America," an exhaustive and enlightening look at the black experience in the British Colonies and, later, the United States. But Bagwell firmly believes his four-part, six-hour documentary is more than a simple history lesson.

The series, which begins tomorrow night on MPT, traces the history of slavery as an institution and as a defining influence on how Americans view one another. Even while white Americans were exploiting a system based on the idea that an entire race of people could be bought and sold, they established a democracy based on the concept of freedom as an inalienable right.

If they failed to see the hypocrisy, black Americans did not - a dichotomy that fostered an us-vs.-them mentality the country still suffers under more than 130 years after the Civil War supposedly settled the issue.

"Once there was a decision to set people aside and to make them the permanent labor force, then of course you're on somewhat of a slippery slope, because the next thing is to convince someone that this kind of thinking is correct, that in fact there is something about these people that makes them the people that should be this permanent work force. ... It begins to move you in a long, continuous series of decisions and laws that not only enforce that idea, but also work toward maintaining that system.

"I hope, by looking at this, we begin to recognize how certain ideas about racial identity have been constructed in this country," says Bagwell, who served as the series' executive producer and directed tomorrow night's opening chapter. "And if we begin to see that ... these ideas were constructed over generations, we can recognize how deeply ingrained some of these ideas are within us."

Such an understanding, he suspects, "can contribute to a really worthwhile discussion about issues today that we're facing, around issues of race and identity in our society."

Bagwell first rose to prominence directing two episodes of "Eyes on the Prize" (1988), a chronicle of the Civil Rights movement that stands alongside Ken Burns' "The Civil War" (1990) as one of the finest historical documentaries of this generation. Since then, his work has included "The Great Depression" (1993), "Frederick Douglass: When the Lion Wrote History" (1994) and "Malcolm X: Make it Plain" (1994).

He's been making films for 18 years, as everything from a staff producer for the PBS series "Frontline" (a product of Boston's WGBH) to executive vice president for Blackside Inc. (producers of "The Great Depression") to founder and president of ROJA Productions, a Boston-based film and television production company.

For Bagwell, the most pleasant surprise he uncovered in researching "Africans in America" - apart from his family tree - was the wealth of source material, including journals from free blacks and other contemporary accounts.

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