Ask scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. about the problems facing black Americans and how to fix them and the words pour out.
He talks about personal responsibility, government obligation and how successful blacks must reach out to “brothers and sisters left behind.”
But in “America Beyond the Color Line,” a four-part PBS documentary Gates wrote and produced, he gives others the floor.
The mighty and rich, including Secretary of State Colin Powell and hip hop mogul Russell Simmons, are heard.
So, in equal measure, are those who often are voiceless.
Giving voice to the voicelessFollowing in the footsteps of acclaimed oral historian Studs Terkel, Gates lets people living with poverty, crime and stunted dreams tell their story and offer their answers.
There’s the mother who, living with her daughter and grandchildren in a Chicago housing project, rises above its drugs and gangs. The young man who gave up crime to choose morality and minimum wage at a fast-food restaurant but sees little chance to advance.
Meet the man who’s wasted much of his life behind bars: “If I was Jesse Jackson and I was trying to keep those black men from even going to prison, or trying to get them out of prison, I would encourage everybody in the neighborhood ... to grab a person that they feel needs help.”
We also hear from those who have excelled.
Gates talks with a successful young couple who moved from Detroit to Atlanta and are content to live in an affluent black neighborhood — a new kind of segregation but one they chose, not one forced upon them — and others who are emblematic of black achievement.
Rooted in the here and now“America Beyond the Color Line” (airing 9-11 p.m. ET Tuesday and Wednesday, Feb. 3 and 4; check local listings) comes during Black History Month, when television remembers to pay attention to black Americans and usually does it literally: by relating the past.
The documentary is firmly in the here and now, using history to illuminate where we stand and where we need to go.
The first hour, “South: The Black Belt,” scrutinizes the region that was home to the civil rights movement and how it has changed for blacks who have returned, including actor Morgan Freeman and poet Maya Angelou.
“Chicago: Streets of Heaven,” is the ironic title of a look at the poverty of the city’s South Side housing projects and the contrast with an expanding black middle class.
Blacks who have emerged as political, business and cultural leaders, including Powell and Simmons, and what their success means for the overall progress of black America are featured in “East Coast: Ebony Towers.”
In “Los Angeles: Black Hollywood,” the final hour, actors Don Cheadle and Samuel L. Jackson and musician Alicia Keys are among those weighing in on the role of race in the entertainment industry.
A companion book, “America Behind the Color Line: Dialogues with African Americans” (Warner Books) compiles and extends Gates’ film interviews.
The best of times, the worst of timesWhat Gates found was both encouraging and discouraging, including a black middle class that is the largest in U.S. history but an underclass that is unchanged since the 1968 murder of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
“For the African-American community, it’s the best of times, the worst of times,” Gates, a Harvard University professor and chairman of the school’s Department of Afro-American Studies, said in an interview.
He was inspired in his quest by black leader and scholar W.E.B. DuBois’ contention that “the color line” between whites and blacks was the major 20th-century issue facing black Americans.
Gates found a very different perspective emerging as he queried a broad cross-section of fellow 21st century blacks.
“What was really interesting to me is that so many people focused on the poor choices that we as a people are making,” he said. “We can’t wait to be liberated by an Abraham Lincoln galloping down Main Street on a white horse anymore.
“We have to reach into the community, insist we stay in school, learn our ABCs, learn our math tables, embrace deferred gratification, stay away from drugs, ignore the bling-bling and return to values that we were raised on.”
In the 1950s and ’60s, he says, “getting an education was the blackest thing you could do. Our heroes were Martin Luther King, not basketball and football players. Everyone understood that the value added to the black community by a doctor and a lawyer was considerably greater” than that of an athlete.
While Gates heaps demands on blacks — “Stop dropping out of school. Stop being homophobic, anti-Semitic, sexist” — he is equally hard on what he sees as the government’s inadequate response to black social and economic problems.
“We need a moral and attitudinal evolution within the African-American community at the same time we’re insisting on comprehensive federal jobs programs, school reform and prison reform,” he said.
Missing sense of urgencyBut the sense of urgency that once accompanied discussions of civil rights and black poverty is missing from the American dialogue, Gates acknowledged.
“The growth of the black middle class has led many people to say, ‘See, the creme de la creme brulee, as it were, has risen to the top. And we’re not racist because look, there’s Colin Powell and Condie Rice and Vernon Jordan and (American Express Chairman) Ken Chenault,”’ he said.
But that ignores reality, including the harsh truth in a city like Chicago, he said: One in five black men there is in prison, on probation or on parole and 45 percent of all black men between the ages of 20 to 24 are out of school and unemployed.
Everyone must have a hand in finding solutions, Gates said.
“This film is meant to be a wake-up call both to the American society at large and to the African-American community.”