One of the most surprising things about “Good Trouble,” a new documentary on Georgia Congressman John Lewis’ six decades in the public spotlight, is how many jokes appear during the 96-minute runtime.
The levity that imbues Lewis, 80, as he gathers with staffers, chats with relatives and booms from a podium persists in someone who has endured some of the worst America has to offer.
The film makes his sacrifices clear — the civil rights movement was a brutal affair as Lewis put his body on the line time after time in nonviolent demonstrations from “Bloody Sunday” to the Freedom Rides and the March on Washington. The documentary’s title itself comes from Lewis’ belief that “good trouble, necessary trouble” is necessary to change the world.
Director Dawn Porter, whose film credits include “Bobby Kennedy for President” and “Spies of Mississippi,” yearned to hear more from the civil rights icon. She was intrigued by the breadth of his work, she said, and wondered: “How do you do justice to such a magnificent life?”
“We came to him…at a time when he was ready to tell his story,” she told NPR. “You know, I think he is – as he was approaching his 80th birthday, he’s always reflective, but I think he was particularly reflective. So it was a wonderful time for both of us to engage on this adventure together.”
A dizzying montage of Lewis stumping for a slew of progressive candidates in 2018’s midterm elections shows the stamina and grit of a man determined to help the country moves forward. “My greatest fear is that one day we may wake up and our democracy is gone,” he says quietly in one scene. “As long as I have breath in my body, I will do what I can.”
Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards jury chair Henry Louis Gates Jr makes an appearance, remarking that Lewis wept on his show, “Finding Your Roots,” as his team was able to uncover the activist’s great-great grandfather’s voting registration card from 1867.
“And by my calculation,” Gates told him, “no one in your family between him and you — because of what you did at Pettus Bridge and the Voting Rights Act — no one in your family line voted between him and you.”
Gates recalled that after Lewis composed himself, he simply replied: “I guess it’s in my DNA.”
Viewers witness the multi generational impact of Lewis in scenes of eager readers thrusting copies of “March,” his young adult graphic novel chronicling the movement, asking for autographs. (Lewis won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 1999 for “Walking With the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement,” the precursor to “March.”)
Mostly, the film portrays Lewis as a gentle leader who has seen the country through some unbelievable lows. But it also reminds viewers that Lewis has moments of ferocity. The contentious 1986 Congressional election saw him face off with friend and fellow activist Julian Bond for a seat in Atlanta’s fifth district, a battle Lewis ultimately won.
Soundbites from those who know him best — his chief of staff, his siblings, fellow Congressional Black Caucus members — fill in the portrait, alongside the man himself. One voice is missing — Lillian Miles, Lewis’ wife of 44 years, who died in 2012. It is clear from those around him that Lewis is still working through his grief. As his sister noted, after her death, “He got quieter.”
The film wrapped in December, right before the news that the congressman had been diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. An erroneous tweet from Congresswoman Alma Adams of North Carolina on July 11 reported on the congressman’s passing, leading to an outpouring of relief as his team refuted the rumors.
“Grateful that the great @repjohnlewis is still with us,” former national security adviser Susan Rice tweeted. “We need the wisdom and strength of this American hero and civil rights icon now more than ever.”
Indeed, the film elevates Lewis at a critical time — it was released July 3, in the midst of a national reckoning with race after the police killing of George Floyd. In a virtual townhall June 15 on the mental health impact of the uprisings on Black America, Lewis was delighted at the action he saw in the streets nationwide: “We must continue to be bold, brave, courageous, push and pull, ’til we redeem the soul of America and move closer to a community at peace with itself.”
Henry Louis Gates Jr. rarely speaks about one of his most publicized moments — the July 2009 arrest by Sgt. James Crowley at his Cambridge home, leading to the infamous “beer summit” at the Obama White House.
Now the multi-hyphenate — historian, TV host, executive producer, editor, Harvard professor and Anisfield-Wolf jury chair — reflects on that incident, some 11 years later, in a new interview with New York Times magazine.
“President Obama made an innocent comment that the arrest was stupid, which it was,” he told the publication. Then all of a sudden all these racists are beating up on him. My whole attitude was channeled through the desire to protect our first black president.”
Throughout the interview, Gates toggles from subject to subject, from myths of the slave trade to his thoughts on the remaining Democratic presidential candidates. (No official endorsement yet but he’s got his eye on Michael Bloomberg.)
A few highlights:
On his perspective of the beer summit” incident:
I thought that it would be hubristic and dishonest if I compared what happened to me to what happens to black people in the inner city….Well, that might be related to police excesses and abuses, but it’s a far end of the scale, and I was able to reverse what happened to me, unlike an Eric Garner.
On America’s responsibility for reparations:
I do believe that it’s impossible for any rational person not to understand the cost of 400 years of slavery and then another century of Jim Crow. We have to find ways to compensate for that cost. Affirmative action, to me, is a form of reparations. So is health care — Obamacare or a variant. And there’s reform of public education. One of the most radical things we could do to reform public-school education would be to equalize the amount of money spent per student in every school. That is never going to happen, but that would constitute a radical shift.
On the quiet objective of his PBS show, “Finding Your Roots”:
I’m trying to use the popularity of “Finding Your Roots” to get these political messages in there without being a scold. I am trying to deconstruct notions of racial purity. There is no racial purity. We are all diverse. Showing diversity is important to me politically and insofar as we can achieve that, our series has an educational value for the larger country, particularly at a time when we’re at Redemption [the period of white rollback of black progress following Reconstruction] redux.
What if Martin Luther King Jr woke up and asked, “What happened since I’ve been gone?” The answer is the premise of “Black America Since MLK: And Still I Rise” – the latest documentary series from Henry Louis Gates Jr.
The two-parter premieres on PBS November 15 at 8 p.m., with Gates serving as host, executive producer and writer. There is also a companion book, “And Still I Rise,” published in 2015.
In the 50 years since King was assassinated, progress in Black America has been complex. African Americans have dominated sports, music and pop culture over the past few decades, but struggled since 1965 in the economic and political realms. “Black America Since MLK” explores this multi-faceted coin, examining mass incarceration, child poverty and police brutality alongside the election of the nation’s first black president.
“I want white America and black America to listen to black people talking to each other about what their lives mean and what these events signify,” said Gates, who chairs the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards jury. “I want Americans to realize we’ve come a long way, but we still have a long way to go.”
This series promises new faces will emerge as eyewitnesses to history.
“We’re all familiar with the leadership — especially the male leadership, so I wanted to tell the story of Ella Baker,” Gates told Salon. “But I was also finding foot soldiers, who didn’t make the evening news but were sitting in those churches, clapping their hands, but had never been interviewed before. So we spent a lot of time on the ground, just talking to people. ‘Hey, were you there? Do you want to be in the series?’… We wanted to widen the lens.”
Viewers can tune in November 15 and 22. Watch the official trailer below:
Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. spent a sunny April Saturday in Cleveland speaking frankly about money and race and aspiration.
He brought a relaxed manner to a charged topic as keynote speaker before 350 participants in the biennial African American Philanthropic Summit, hosted by the Cleveland Foundation.
“Black people have a long tradition of philanthropy,” said the long-time jury chair of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards. “We just don’t know that. It is called the collection plate. We’ve been ponying up pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters for ages and ages. The building fund – our building always looked the same. I think it was the preacher building a Cadillac.”
A laughter of recognition rolled through the conference center at Corporate College East in Warrensville Heights, Ohio. Turns out nearly two-thirds of African-Americans donate to various causes, giving roughly $11 billion each year to charity, according to a 2012 report from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
Gates sat smiling and comfortable in a gray suit with a red tie with moderator Russ Mitchell, lead anchor of WKYC Channel 3. Mitchell, who wore a gray suit with a green tie, let the afternoon, and the conversation, flow. An audience member asked the Harvard University scholar to name the most pressing philanthropic need.
“Reforming our schools,” he answered. “It’s the key to progress, the key to citizenship and the key to social elevation . . . We have to reform our people’s attitude toward the school system but we also have to make the school system a place that nourishes young people.”
He advised listeners to be intentional, to form giving circles and select recipients based on good metrics and hard data. “So many of us think, ‘If I could only see Oprah and just tell her about the church needing a new wing and she would write a check,’” Gates said. “It doesn’t work that way.”
Quoting James Baldwin—“Be careful what you set your heart upon, for it will surely be yours”—Gates reflected on his own blessings, and his decision in 1991 to ask the Harvard University Endowment office to help him raise money to rebuild African and African-American studies. He said the endowment staff responded: “We’re going to give you the first lesson in fund-raising. There are three groups of people who never give: doctors, actors, and black people.”
Gates, who has a knack for inviting everyone to the party, described the success that belied the stereotype. He also recounted how private equity billionaire Glenn Hutchins came across Gates’ August forum on Martha’s Vineyard. Eventually, the mogul decided to donate $30 million to what has become the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard.
But Gates didn’t linger on a triumphal note. Instead, he invited his audience to think with him about the state of black America: a quadrupling of the black middle class since 1968 and a stubbornly persistent 35 percent of black children at or below the poverty line since the same era, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated.
“When I was growing up—I was born in 1950—the blackest thing you could be was an educated man or an educated woman for the Negro people,” said Gates, who was raised in West Virginia, where his father was a mill worker and a janitor. “I’m serious. Who were our heroes? Thurgood Marshall, Mary McLeod Bethune, Rosa Parks, Dr. King. We loved athletes and entertainers, but the real heroes were the race men and the race women. Where did that go? That went the way of the west wind. Now we have to remind people that we too are people of the book. Our people defied the master of the plantation to read and write. Now so many of our kids—who have more opportunity than any of us had at six or seven—are squandering that opportunity. For what? Blaming white racism and the white man? Forget that, man. I have no sympathy for that.”
Instead, Gates called—gently, with a smile—on his listeners to build the beloved community without condescension, with patience and persistence. And, always, with the amplifying strength of each other.
Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr.— who served as executive producer, host, and writer for “The African-Americans: Many Rivers to Cross” —learned this week that his six-part documentary won the highest honor in broadcasting: a Peabody Award.
“This is a great victory of all of us that love African-American history and those of us that want to see it become an explicably intertwined part of American culture,” Gates said in a statement on TheRoot.com. “This took five years and is a great victory for our ancestors and their sacrifices, and they should be celebrated every day in a school curriculum, and my hope is that the DVD will be used in every classroom from kindergarten to college.”
For the first time in its 73 year history, the Peabodys were announced live on television. CBS This Morning broke the news, naming the winners for the best work in TV, radio, and Internet storytelling, Gates, who chairs the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards, shared his elation with the rest of the jury – poet Rita Dove, novelist Joyce Carol Oates, psychologist Steven Pinker and historian Simon Schama. Each sent their congratulations. Gates, who wrote that he was “ecstatic,” celebrated by taking in a Knicks game.
If you follow Henry Louis Gates Jr. on Twitter or Facebook, you are probably already privy to the bevy of heavy hitters he has recruited for his new PBS series, “The African Americans: Many Rivers To Cross,” premiering Oct 21. The six-part documentary features names as varied as the Black Panther Party’s Kathleen Cleaver to Roots’ drummer Questlove. Gates has mentioned that he is particularly proud of procuring the insights of General Colin Powell.
The chair of the Anisfield-Wolf book awards serves executive producer, host and writer for the series, using his unparalleled knowledge of African-American history (and access to some of the nation’s foremost historians) to flesh out what most history books only skim. The series aspires to document the entire 500-year history of African-Americans, from the beginnings of the slave trade to the present-day occupant of the White House.
In a recent interview, Gates said this series was 40 years in the making. His inspiration for “The African Americans” was the 1968 program, “Black History: Lost, Stolen or Strayed,” hosted by Bill Cosby, a seven-part look at the unheralded contributions of blacks in film, science and other endeavors. Gates’ series is a deeper dive into narratives much enhanced by leading historians, including former Anisfield-Wolf winners Ira Berlin, David Eltis and Annette Gordon Reed.
After the premiere on October 21, a new hour-long episode will air each Tuesday until the finale on November 26. Join us on Twitter as we tweet with Gates during each episode, using the hashtag #ManyRiversPBS. Catch a peek at the first episode with this two-minute video on a slave girl simply known as Priscilla:
Anisfield-Wolf jury chair Henry Louise Gates Jr. has been busy the past few months, filming episodes of his new PBS series, “The African-Americans: Many Rivers to Cross.” The six-part documentary will cover more than four centuries of African-American history, starting with the origins of slavery in Africa and moving to the present day.
Leading up to the series premiere, Gates has written a weekly column for TheRoot.com, “100 Amazing Facts About the Negro,” in which he uncovers little-known tidbits about African-American history.
“Over the past 500 years, our ancestors in this country have been as stubborn, determined, idiosyncratic, individualistic, argumentative and complex as the 42 million African Americans living today are,” Gates wrote in the inaugural column.
“Many Rivers To Cross” will premiere Tuesday, October 22 at 8:00 p.m. EST. A new hour-long episode will air each Tuesday until the finale on November 26.
Follow Gates on Twitter and Facebook, as he has been giving occasional behind-the-scenes peeks at filming locations and subjects.
March 10th, 2013 was the 100th anniversary of the death of Harriet Tubman, a woman whose name is synonymous with bravery and freedom.
Growing up, I attended a small public school in East Cleveland, where each of the students was required to learn the following poem by Eloise Greenfield:
Harriet Tubman didn’t take no stuff
Wasn’t scared of nothing neither
Didn’t come in this world to be no slave
And wasn’t going to stay one either
“Farewell!” she sang to her friends one night
She was mighty sad to leave ’em
But she ran away that dark, hot night
Ran looking for her freedom
She ran to the woods and she ran through the woods
With the slave catchers right behind her
And she kept on going till she got to the North
Where those mean men couldn’t find her
Nineteen times she went back South
To get three hundred others
She ran for her freedom nineteen times
To save Black sisters and brothers
Harriet Tubman didn’t take no stuff
Wasn’t scared of nothing neither
Didn’t come in this world to be no slave
And didn’t stay one either
And didn’t stay one either
For young black children being taught by (mostly) black teachers, this was but one way they introduced us to our heritage. The Harriet Tubman I was introduced to was fierce and fearless. As Greenfield wrote, she “didn’t take no stuff.” This woman was one of the giants whose shoulders we stood on.
And now, on the anniversary of her death, we are reminded that her legend still looms large over us but she remains largely a mystery. Our very own Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s most recent piece for The Root, “How Did Harriet Tubman Become A Legend?,” explores what historians know thus far of this American hero:
In 1849, a young woman hurried along a path cutting through a marsh in Poplar Neck, Md., near the town of Preston. She was a slave, barely 5 feet tall. She was scarred from several beatings. She alternated between walking and running, like thousands of other slaves had before her, desperately hoping to cross the Mason-Dixon Line to the get to the North, to freedom in Philadelphia. With a great deal of luck and skill, she made it. And what did she do once she was free? Unlike virtually any other person before her or after, this fugitive slave turned around and walked back into slavery, counter-intuitively, in order to free other slaves. And for this, she would become a legend.
We’ve long felt honored to have Henry Louis Gates, Jr., one of the nation’s most preeminent African American scholars, as our jury chair. Having met him numerous times over the past few years, I’m always awed by his depth of knowledge and his ease in front of a crowd.
All of this makes him a wonderful human being and all the more deserving of his latest honor. Henry Louis Gates Jr is the one of the latest Americans to have his portrait displayed at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. In a portrait commissioned by Harvard University, Gates is depicted with several influential works, those of W.E.B. DuBois, Wole Soyinka and Kwame Anthony Appiah.
We are very, very proud for his portrait to be included amongst some of the most prominent people in U.S. history. Kudos on a well-deserved honor!
“There’s no one writing in the English language today who more precisely and passionately articulates the exile’s experience than Edwidge Danticat.” And so begins Henry Louis Gates’ introduction of our 2005 winner. In this 2012 video, Danticat discusses her work and exile, what it means to be an immigrant artist, and responsibility to one’s home country. This event was co-presented by Cambridge Forum, Harvard Bookstore, and Harvard’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute.
We know we highlighted him a few weeks ago, but is something to be said for a man who is so passionate, so prolific, so generous with his time, that he dedicates a significant portion of his time working with us here at Anisfield-Wolf as our jury chair. As he puts it, “Chairing the jury for the Anisfield Wolf Book Awards is one of the signal pleasures of my life. The thought that a poet—a white, female poet—had the foresight to endow a price to honor excellence and diversity, at the height of the Great Depression, is something of a miracle, isn’t it?”
Gates himself is a 1989 Anisfield-Wolf award winner, for his work, The Schomburg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers. In the midst of churning out impressive tomes on African American history (or as he would put it, American history), filming PBS specials, his duties as the the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor at Harvard University, and his role as the editor-in-chief of TheRoot.com, he is fully invested in his role as our jury chair. We are grateful to have Gates’ wit and deep intellect associated with this prize. We thought we’d have a little fun this Friday and share a clip of our friend on the Colbert Report, where he goes toe-to-toe with the funny man Stephen Colbert but also makes us learn a little something at the same time.
Anisfield-Wolf jury chair Henry Louis Gates has a resume a mile long. And in between his work at Harvard, his successful PBS specials, among his other numerous obligations, he found time to finish “Life On These Shores: Looking At African-American History 1513-2008,” an expansive look at the experience of blacks in America from the time of arrival of the free black conquistador Juan Garrido with Ponce de León in 1513 to the election of President Obama in 2008. Gates covers subjects as diverse as NBA great Bill Russell to Malcolm X to former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
The reason he’s able to write such books on such expansive topics is quite simply, his love for knowledge. In this interview with the Boston Globe, he talks about his love of reading and what books he believes everyone should pick up at least once. Check out the short excerpt below:
“Steve Jobs’’ by Walter Isaacson, which I’m loving, and “The Complete Tales of Uncle Remus’’ by Joel Chandler Harris. Most people look back at “Uncle Remus’’ and think it was racist, but people like W.E.B. Dubois in the teens and ’20s wrote about Harris as a preserver of black culture. So I’m going back to see. I just finished reading, “Freedom Papers’’ by Rebecca Scott [and Jean M. Hébrard], which traces a black woman’s family across five generations. It’s a brilliant book. I’m also reading the “Library of Congress Illustrated Timeline of the Civil War.’’ And lately I’ve been on a Faulkner kick. I read “Absalom, Absalom!’’ and “As I Lay Dying.’’ That’s what I’ve been reading on planes. The thing that Faulkner got right was the intimacy in black and white relations.
The book he’d recommend to everyone
“The Intuitionist’’ by Colson Whitehead. “Invisible Man’’ by Ralph Ellison to me is the greatest novel of that time. Rita Dove’s poetry. Anything by Jamaica Kincaid and by Toni Morrison. My favorite of hers is “Jazz.’’
CLEVELAND, Ohio (April 12, 2011) – The Cleveland Foundation today announced the winners of the 76th Annual Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards www.Anisfield-Wolf.org
Nicole Krauss, Great House, Fiction
Mary Helen Stefaniak, The Cailiffs of Baghdad, Georgia, Fiction
David Eltis/David Richardson, Atlas of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, Nonfiction
Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns, Nonfiction
John Edgar Wideman, Lifetime Achievement
“The 2011 Anisfield-Wolf winners are notable for the unique way each author addresses the complex issues of race and cultural diversity,” said Henry Louis Gates Jr., the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University, who serves as jury chair. “The books and authors honored this year stand out, not only for their creative and wide-ranging approach to difficult subject matter, but also for their underlying faith in our shared humanity.”
“Cleveland poet and philanthropist Edith Anisfield Wolf created this book prize more than 75 years ago because of her conviction that the issue of race was the most critical dilemma facing the United States. It was her fervent desire to break down stereotypes and encourage civil discourse so that future generations would be more appreciative of human diversity,” said Cleveland Foundation President and Chief Executive Officer Ronald B. Richard. “This prize remains a fitting testimony to the vision of a woman truly ahead of her time.”
About the Anisfield-Wolf Prize
The Anisfield-Wolf winners will be honored in Cleveland on September 15 at a ceremony hosted by the Cleveland Foundation and emceed by Jury Chair Gates. Rita Dove, Joyce Carol Oates, Steven Pinker and Simon Schama also served on the jury. The Cleveland Foundation has administered the book awards since 1963, upon the death of its creator, Edith Anisfield Wolf. The Anisfield-Wolf prize remains the only juried American literary competition devoted to recognizing books that have made an important contribution to society’s understanding of racism and the diversity of human cultures.
About the Cleveland Foundation
Established in 1914, the Cleveland Foundation is the world’s first community foundation and the nation’s second-largest today, with assets of $1.87 billion and 2010 grants of nearly $85 million. The foundation improves the lives of Greater Clevelanders by building community endowment, addressing needs through grantmaking, and providing leadership on vital issues. Currently the foundation proactively directs two-thirds of its flexible grant dollars to the community’s greatest needs: economic transformation, public education reform, human services and youth development, neighborhoods, and arts advancement.