Many Rivers to Cross: The Black Atlantic is the first episode of the documentary series The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross. Directed by Henry Louis Gates, the series explores the global experiences which shaped the African American people. The Black Atlantic focuses on the historical period beginning 1500. It explores the time, a century before slaves were first introduced to North America, and portrays the earliest, free, black people, who came to North America “nurturing aspirations and dreams.” Among them were Garrido, the first black man documented to arrive to North America and a black conquistador, and Esteban, who was one of the four survivors in the Mexican expedition crossing the Texas desert.
Then the episode looks into the period when first documented African American slaves in 1619 were delivered to Jamestown, “the ultimate frontier town”. Since that time, slaves were brought from Africa after the local chiefs had sold them to whites, and the slavery business became a lucrative thing for them: “Sometimes they would just grab children and sell them”; others were enslaved as a result of internal wars. In return the chiefs received guns, hard liquor, money, and fine clothes.
The episode further explores the topic of slavery expansion well into the 18th century, when slaves were brought from Africa after the local chiefs had sold them to whites. This is told through the story of Priscilla, a ten year old girl slave, who was brought from Sierra Leone to South Carolina. Through the narrative about Priscilla, we can trace the evolvement of plantation slavery.
Another focus of the first episode of the series is the meaning of the French, American, as well as Haitian revolutions for slavery in America and for all African Americans. The revolutions “ignited their own dreams, but for the most part those dreams were ignored”; this is clear, the father of the nation, George Washington, was the largest plantation owner and slave owner. So black people started to help the British troops as “Black Pioneers” in return of their liberty, yet most of them were ravaged by the war. The liberation came only around after the century.