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Struggle and resistance are hallmarks of the African American experience, but they are not the only story. Beyond the reach of the “White gaze,” Black people worked and played, laughed and loved, hoped and dreamed, started families, built schools and businesses, formed communities, and created vast social networks that, borrowing from the motto of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, lifted as they climbed. In this new four-hour documentary series, Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. takes us “behind the Veil” of racial segregation in Jim Crow America to tell their story.

The preeminent intellectual of the 20th century, W. E. B. Du Bois, famously likened the Black experience in the United States to a form of “double-consciousness,” that “peculiar sensation” he described as “always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” Yet, Du Bois went on, whenever a black man or woman could slip past “the world of the white man,” and step within “the Veil,” where “they could be and bear their true selves to one another.”

Excluded from white society on so many fronts, African Americans in the long years from slavery to desegregation constructed their own society and, in doing so, established networks that resisted, and eventually toppled, Jim Crow, while giving birth to new cultural forms that transformed world culture, from literature to jazz. Throughout the series, Professor Gates inverts the standard narrative of history as a battleground over the repressive, violent forces of white supremacy and of African Americans making “progress” by crossing the color line, and instead center the arc on the private and communal lives of those who, trapped by Jim Crow rule, nevertheless created a diverse, and vibrant, world of their own.

The series begins on the heels of the American Revolution with the establishment of the first African American fraternal order, the Prince Hall Masons in 1775, that helped lay a foundation for self-determination, mutual care, and economic independence in the dawning 19th century.  After Emancipation and Reconstruction, the borders of the color line were drawn as rigidly in the North as they were in the South. For the African American community, survival became a form of resistance. Under the constant threat of racial violence, they built Black enclaves, settlements, and towns, and used these spaces to strengthen communities, fight for full citizenship, and educate their children for the future.

During the 20th century, this Black world sailed forward through a wave of institution-building, from the establishment of separate churches, high schools, and Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) to everyday businesses in the “Black section” of towns and cities where barbershops and funeral parlors, doctors’ offices and Negro baseball leagues, blues and jazz clubs dotted the landscape.

Through nearly a century of Jim Crow oppression, economic and cultural innovations flourished in this sepia world, while the informal economies of numbers and rent parties collectively helped communities weather the devastation of the Great Depression. The community also would undertake collective actions, such as boycotts and labor union organizing, to lay the groundwork for a massive effort to dismantle segregation and push for civil rights. And, despite many of the gains of legal desegregation, many continued to seek congregation in all Black spaces whether in vacation spots like Martha’s Vineyard and Sag Harbor, music festivals like AfroPunk, and the current social media phenomenon of Black Twitter.

But, this sepia world was not without its tensions. Class divisions, ethnic and regional diversity, and sharp political debates on whether the community should integrate and work within the system or build their own separate nation were always simmering in the background. These issues would flare up at pivotal moments from the Negro Conventions of the 19th century and the formation of Marcus Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) to the contentious debates at the 1972 National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana and the political arguments around the Black Lives Matter Movement. The Black community has never been monolithic.

Making Black America draws viewers into an extraordinary world that showcased Black people’s ability to collectively prosper, defy white supremacy and define Blackness in ways that transformed America itself.