Still a Few Rivers to Cross


When Barack Obama won the 2008 South Carolina Democratic presidential primary, I couldn’t help but wonder if maybe America had crossed a post-racial benchmark. Boy, was I wrong or what?

The resurgence of outright racism against African-Americans as well as its pernicious fellow travelers of veiled and coded prejudice since Obama’s election has sickened me unto frequent disgust. Not to mention the similar sentiments from white Americans towards Muslims since 9/11 and Mexican-Americans (and ...). In the United States I live in, the corner store at the end of my block is owned and staffed by the former from South Asia and in its parking lot is a taco trailer run by the latter that’s about as scrumptious as any in my city filled with them.

The civil rights movement of the 1950s and ‘60s parallels my life and coming of age. Enough Americans said “Yes we can” and we did, or so it seemed. Oprah Winfrey recently got right wingers in a tizzy (and even so-called left-wingers tut-tutting) when she said: “There are still generations of people, older people, who were born and bred and marinated in it, in that prejudice and racism, and they just have to die.” Only then will there be a substantial change in racial attitudes. (I would hope with this readership that you all understand that she obviously means die in time as we all do, not taking them out.)

Yes, that has been and will continue to be part of the process that may take us closer to a post-racial society. But it’s hardly all that may lead us to a better, more humane, tolerant and mutually respectful nation in the realm of racial attitudes.

As bad as resurgent racism has been in reaction to a black man in the White House, let’s not forget how far African-Americans have come, how great their struggle has been and the obstacles they’ve overcome. That’s implicit in the title of the six-part PBS series (with an accompanying book) The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, hosted and spearheaded by Harvard professor and PBS personality Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

The series starts with the slave trade and ends with President Obama’s election, and even six hours is hardly enough time to fully cover the depths of the history while also featuring the conversations (more than being interviews) that Gates has with fellow experts as well as pivotal living figures in recent times. It is a story every American should know, and the show does an admirable job of tracing the major events and movements within a cogent overview. For those of us who already know the details, it is always good to be reminded.

And especially recall the bravery and determination of the Civil Rights movement as it used grassroots action and people power to make its goals inevitable. But also see that within such other forces as the Harlem Renaissance, the World War II service of Blacks in the military, the northern migrations to industrial jobs that was a part of the economic rise of African-Americans and other currents and movements that helped create profound change. Many Rivers to Cross is as much cultural history as it is facts and a linear story.

For those of us who do live, believe and act with a post-racial consciousness, nothing in the show is revelatory though the collective effect of the story as told in the series can’t help but be moving. As one who believes that entertainment can be a force for social change – and nowhere is that more evident in how African-Americans entered and changed mainstream society and consciousness through entertainment – I have to ponder how Many Rivers to Cross might do so. I doubt exposure to this story could change some people who seem nearly hard-wired racists (but one never knows). But for the more average American, the series should help people realize just how much African-Americans had to overcome, how far they came, how much their progress was powered from within their community and not so government intervention (and often opposition). And how, as has been recently obvious, far they and us still need to go. Plus it’s simply rich history filled with every shade of human drama.

I would hope as Winfrey believes that with successive generations racists will die and leave less of a legacy, as history does seem to suggest will happen though racism itself dying still seems a far off noble aim. (Lest we forget and few seem to mention, within the next two decades the racial composition of the United States will shift as Hispanics outnumber the rest of us.) “Many Rivers to Cross” is a worthy retrospective and benchmark of where matters are today. May the future continue to be better.

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email

From The Progressive Populist, February 15, 2014

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