Sin of slavery an injustice for all Preview: Four-part 'Africans in America' shows painful history, and the deep wounds that have yet to heal.

October 19, 1998|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

From the journal of a contented 18th-century Virginia planter and slaveholder, preparing to turn in for the evening:

Eugene was whipped for running away and had the bit put on him. I said my prayers. I had my health, good thoughts and good humor. Thanks be to God Almighty.

Such ironies are at the heart of "Africans in America: America's Journey Through Slavery," a provocative, moving documentary debuting tonight on PBS. The four-part, six-hour series looks at not just the history of that most peculiar of institutions, but also the corrosive effect it had -- and continues to have -- on a nation supposedly dedicated to individual liberty.

Using a mix of contemporary accounts, many written by free blacks still struggling to get their families out of bondage, and commentary from historians, "Africans in America" chronicles an evil whose bile touched everyone.

In 1619, a single Dutch ship arrived in Virginia and unloaded the cargo it had seized from a Spanish vessel -- Africans kidnapped from their native land. Thus was slavery introduced to the English colonies of America. Almost 250 years would pass before Americans stopped selling human beings to one another.

Slavery's victims were everywhere. Millions of Africans were kidnapped and herded onto ships, forced to endure ocean journeys lasting a minimum of 60 days, confined in spaces smaller than a telephone booth. Landowners set up a slave system that left them in constant fear of the men and women they counted on to run their homes and farm their fields. Politicians preached equality for all men, yet were forced to delude themselves into believing that couldn't possibly apply to Africans.

"Africans in America" posits that all suffered to varying degrees from a slave system that could only be justified through laws and practices that took it as fact that one race was superior to another.

The result was a system that couldn't possibly continue. This series, from executive producer Orlando Bagwell ("Eyes On the Prize," "Frederick Douglass: When the Lion Wrote History"), explains why it didn't.

Although the narrative drags in spots, and no dominant voice arises from the bevy of historians offering their perspectives, "Africans in America" displays a grasp of its subject that can't help but impress. Its most moving images -- slave lists that run on for column after column, specks of daylight seen through the peepholes of rooms where runaway slaves were forced to hide -- will resonate in viewers long after the series has aired.

Part 1, debuting at 8 p.m. on MPT (Channels 22, 67), traces slavery in America from 1619 to the eve of the Revolution. Slavery did not simply appear on these shores; rather, it evolved over time, as landowners in the colonies soon realized they could run their farms far more efficiently if they didn't have to pay people to work them.

It didn't take long for racial prejudice to find its way to the New World. In 1640, three indentured servants, while paying off the cost of their ocean crossing, ran away from a Virginia plantation. When caught, the courts sentenced two of them -- a Scotsman and a Dutchman -- to be whipped and have a year added to their servitude; the third, an African, was sentenced to a lifetime of service to his master.

"The Terrible Transformation" also chronicles some of the early efforts undertaken by native Africans to win back their freedom -- efforts that alternately relied on reason and force.

Episode 2, "Revolution," struggles with the question of how slavery could exist in a society based on equality. The easy answer: Men who should have known better -- and, in their private moments, often admitted same -- simply turned a blind eye to it.

Episode 3, "Brotherly Love," follows the country's early history and the rise of the black voice in America, as former slaves banded together to become a social, as well as political, force.

Finally, in Episode 4, "Judgment Day," the prophecies of Thomas Jefferson -- who, though a slaveholder himself, had predicted that God would make the country pay for allowing slavery -- seem to come true. Abolitionists resorted to whatever measures they deemed necessary to end slavery, often turning to violence. It took a bloody Civil War to settle the issue.

"Their struggle to be free, to be us, was only beginning," narrator Angela Bassett explains as the series winds down. "The road to freedom they all started down now would be more difficult and more painful than any of them could imagine. But they began."

'Africans in America'

When: 8 p.m.- 9:30 p.m. today through Thursday

Where: PBS (Channels 22, 67)

Pub Date: 10/19/98

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