by Eugene Holley Jr.
In his 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote, "The problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line."
America Beyond the Color Line--a two-part four-hour PBS special with Henry Louis Gates Jr.--is an intricate and involved examination of how African-Americans have negotiated, broken through and been defeated by that color line at the beginning of the 21st century.
In the series, Gates--who's written, co-written and edited a number of critically acclaimed books and TV documentaries--interviews African-Americans from different parts of the country.
In "South: The Black Belt" Gates studies the "New South," to which blacks like Morgan Freeman and Maya Angelou have remigrated. In Memphis, Tenn., where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, we meet the African-American mayor and police chief. In Birmingham, Ala., Gates introduces us to a mixed-race couple and their daughter. In Ft. Benning, Ga., the military's struggles to integrate its troops are also chronicled, and we see the affluent all-black suburbs of Atlanta, which Gates sees as examples of resegregation.
"Chicago: Streets of Heaven" shows the plight of blacks in the Windy City's South Side ghetto. Gates' talk with an articulate African-American in prison painfully illustrates what happens when black men have no jobs or positive black role models--or worse, reject positive ones for fear of being too white.
In "East Coast: Ebony Towers" that fear of being white takes a different turn when Gates interviews an upper-class black New Jersey couple who caution their children to look out for lower-class black kids accusing them of being white.
In Washington, D.C., Colin Powell takes hip-hop to task for its negative stereotypes. But as Gates says, "This culture which the general feels holds us back is also rich with its phenomenal success stories."
Gates also showcases the "Tiger Woods of chess," black grand master Maurice Ashley, who teaches the game to urban kids.
In "Los Angeles: Black Hollywood" Samuel L. Jackson, Chris Tucker, Quincy Jones and John Singleton say the key to success in Hollywood is determined by how much black skin equals green money.
That point is brought home by white producer Arnon Milchan, who calmly states that a film starring Halle Berry and Denzel Washington would gross "twice as much with a white couple" playing the same parts. Gates' discussion with a group of beautiful dark-skinned actresses and the color prejudice they face from whites and blacks in the business is equally horrifying.
With his calm and engaging demeanor, Gates is the well-tempered thread through the labyrinth of race and class that interweaves the promises and perils of African-American life.
Tues., Feb. 3 and Wed., Feb. 4, 9pm. WHYY-TV 12.