Editor’s note: The Root’s editor-in-chief, Henry Louis Gates Jr., was one of 14 recipients Tuesday night of an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award for his six-part PBS documentary, The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross. Here’s his acceptance speech for the award:
Thank you so very much, Cynthia McFadden, for that very kind introduction. I sat on the board of the Pulitzer Prize just across the campus in the World Room of the Pulitzer Building, and during that entire time, it never once occurred to me that I could be part of a team that could win its cousin, the award nicknamed “the Pulitzer Prize for broadcast journalism,” the keenly competitive Alfred I. duPont-Columbia award.
In January 1968, I sat in the living room of our working-class home in Piedmont, W. Va., and on a small black-and-white TV set watched a documentary called Black History: Lost, Stolen or Strayed, hosted by Bill Cosby. While it was quite fragmentary and last only one hour, I was riveted; it was the first time I heard anything about the subject of black history. It opened up a world of wonder to me; I was hooked. In spite of being raised to be a doctor, when I went to Yale a year later, the first course I enrolled in was a survey course in African-American history, taught by Professor William McFeely. I loved that class. I guess, in retrospect, the die, as they say, was cast the day I heard his first lecture and read the first chapter of our textbook, John Hope Franklin’s From Slavery to Freedom.
In July 1991, Anthony Appiah and I moved from Duke to Harvard, with the charge of rebuilding a moribund department of Afro-American studies. Shortly after the semester began, I got a call from Henry Hampton, to visit his production company, named Blackside, located in the South End of Boston. By the end of that wondrous day, I knew that, in my heart of hearts, what I really wanted to do was to make documentary films, films as great as Henry’s Eyes on the Prize. Since Henry didn’t use hosts or “presenters” in his documentaries, and since no other black documentary producer did either, I had no idea how that would ever happen. And so I had to be content with being just another “talking head,” just another “expert” being interviewed by an associate producer in her or his office.
All that changed in 1993, when out of the blue, producers from the BBC asked me to film an episode of their perennial series, The Great Railways Journeys. A film crew, my daughters (14 and 12) and I traveled through Africa for 3,000 miles on trains, from Great Zimbabwe to Dar es Salaam, and then back to a village where I had lived when I was 19 on a special program back at Yale, with my daughters, 14 and 12. It was serious and moving, but it was also fun: Its conceit was a professor of African and African-American studies trying his best to persuade his two children that they were, somehow, “African,” too. The Guardian of London called it “National Lampoon Goes to Africa.” And it was addictive. I found myself, even during that difficult and arduous train journey, hoping that I would have a chance to make another film.
Source: The Root