As more people probe their own roots, professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. is probing the roots of entire peoples.
The writer, critic and Harvard scholar returns to PBS with the miniseries "Black in Latin America," airing over four consecutive Tuesdays starting April 19 (check local listings). It explores the backgrounds -- and commonalities -- of many of the residents of Brazil, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Mexico and Peru.
"This is part of a trilogy I've made," Gates explains. "The first part, in 1999, was 'Wonders of the African World.' That was followed in 2002 by 'America Beyond the Color Line.' Now, I've tried to replicate the points in the Triangle Trade. People would be picked up on the West Coast of Africa, they'd be taken to slave ports in New England where money and goods also would be picked up, and then they'd be taken to England.
"Here is the most amazing statistic in the history of the slave trade," Gates continues. "We know that 12.5 million Africans came to the New World. Fifteen percent died aboard the ships during the Middle Passage, so 11.2 million or so got off the boats. You know how many came to the United States? Only 450,000. All the rest went to places south of Miami, which is where the real 'black experience' happened. That's amazing."
Modern technology assists Gates greatly in his roots-investigating efforts. "We can do things now with DNA analysis that didn't exist five years ago," he says. "It wasn't even scientifically possible. My goal is to tell the story of the African-American people to the broadest audience. I still love writing scholarly books, but I could never reach as many people as I do with my films."
Gates maintains he didn't appropriate the title of his new program from CNN's "Black in America" franchise overseen by reporter Soledad O'Brien, a friend of his.
I didn't even think of that," he claims. "We played with all kinds of titles, but the reason I called it this was that in America, you're either black or white if you have any African ancestry. In Brazil, there are 136 categories of blackness, and we don't have anything like that here."