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Kam Williams | 5/4/2011, 1:11 p.m.
Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s PBS series reveals complicated history of African American experience beyond the United States

I was a black studies major as an undergrad, and after watching all the episodes of “Black in Latin America,” I felt like I had never learned so much from a TV series about black folks.

Oh, you couldn’t have given me a nicer compliment than that. I was hoping viewers might experience that aura of discovery.  

How did you settle on the countries which would be the subject of the series? Which one has the largest presence of Africans outside of Africa — Brazil or Colombia?

We picked the countries strategically, because we couldn’t cover everything in a four-hour series. We had different categories, and one was size. For instance, we passed on Colombia, the second largest, because we went with Brazil, the largest. Brazil is also Portuguese, which we wanted to contrast with the Hispanic experience. We picked Cuba, because it’s so fascinating and mysterious to Americans. So, I wanted to bring that country to the fore.

The island of Hispaniola was interesting because it’s divided into Haiti, where the people are very proud to be black and they speak Creole and French, and the Dominican Republic, where the national motto was that the country was Catholic, Spanish and white. Finally, we chose Mexico and Peru. Why? Because nobody thinks about their ever having sizable black populations. All anybody remembers are the Aztecs and the Incas. But they had 700,000 slaves combined, compared to America’s 450,000. That’s astonishing!

I found the episode about Haiti very informative, particularly about how President Thomas Jefferson tried to sabotage its independence movement.

Yeah, America systematically attempted to undermine it. Jefferson called it a terrible republic and referred to the people as cannibals. Man, that’s cold. But Haiti has a long and noble history as a free civilization.

Do you think Brazil has an opportunity, given the upcoming Olympics, to show the world that it is making progress in the area of the disparate treatment in society based on the color of one’s skin?

Yeah, I think it has an opportunity, but we have to remember that it takes a long time to make profound social changes. What I fear is that any quick fix will just be cosmetic and designed to pretend to racial democracy. We’re talking about the transformation of the identity of the working and middle classes. I want to see black doctors, black lawyers and other black professionals in much greater proportion than exists today.  

You seem to be making the point that in the U.S., we are mostly unaware, substantively, of “blacks” in Latin America. Would you speak to how aware or unaware, substantively, “blacks” in Latin America are of African Americans?

Blacks in Latin America are keenly aware of African American popular culture, entertainers, athletes, Oprah Winfrey, movie stars and musicians. The whole world is enthralled with hip hop. They’re listening to the same music as our kids. And then there’s Obama! Good Lord! But in terms of a more profound understanding of the black experience in America, I’m not sure. I’d guess that they would have a long way to go.