Tag Archives: PBS

Review of Part 2 of PBS’ “Black in Latin America” – Cuba

Cuban boys playing in Trinidad, Cuba

Trinidad, Cuba. Image via Wikipedia

The first episode offered some promise.  The second left me completely unsatisfied.

I just sat through an hour of the second part of PBSBlack in Latin America documentary series, hosted by Henry Louis Gates.   It was supposed to document how the Cuban Revolution of 1959 affected race relations on an island that has had a tumultuous history with its own identity.

Instead, I got a whole lot of pap about cultural phenomena I already knew about, and very little information on what I wanted to know.

I will grant Dr. Gates one handicap: since he was filming directly in Cuba, there is little doubt the authorities were controlling his footage.  There was little chance he was going to capture–nor did he seem to want to capture–the real essence of Cuban society today.  If you wanted to get a snapshot of the Afro-Cuban experience before 1959, this was a good start.  Then again, most of it wasn’t new to me.

Cuba had been a port of entry for African slaves since the 17th century, although the brunt of Cuban slavery would come in the late 18th and early 19th century, as the island surpassed Haiti as the main supplier of sugar in the Caribbean.  Slavery was abolished late, in 1886, and independence would come after two long wars and a stifling US intervention (1870s-1902).  During that time, the plantation economy translated into society as well, as a caste system kept African culture in the background.

In the 1920s, Cuba began to accept its African heritage, first among intellectuals and then among the populace through music such as son–the forerunner of mambo and other Latin musical forms.  Yet society, the economy and the government had grown largely segregated, in the typical pattern: whites had a lot, blacks not so much.

Then came a bunch of white guys–two of them really white (one had a Spaniard father and one was a quarter Irish)–who decided to start a revolution.

It took 40 minutes of a one-hour program to finally get to the good stuff–you can guess how well it was covered.

Since 1959, the Cuban government under the Castros, Fidel and Raul, had declared racism to be non-existent in revolutionary Cuba.  On paper, at least, there was no distinction between white and black for housing, jobs, education, health care, etc.  Gates interviewed two Afro-Cuban participants in the Revolution who lauded its egalitarian spirit with regards to education and health care.  To be sure, these are advances (though possibly superficial, as I implied in my earlier study of Cuba) would make any Cuban proud, especially those of color who were on the outside looking in.

Today’s Cuba, where tourism and the “double currency” of the CUC and the Peso Nacional rule the roost, has caused a re-emergence of latent racist tendencies that are supposedly “illegal”, since even acknowledgement of racism in Cuba is seen as counterrevolutionary.  Gates interviews young artists and musicians who are trying to bring these concerns to the Cuban public.  The tourism industry, they acknowledge, has pushed darked Cubans back into the background.  Furthermore, the double currency creates a rift between state workers and those in tourism,who often make up to 20 times more.

I could have told you this in my travelogues on Cuba.

So why was I unsatisfied?  Apart from social programs to lift up the Cuban masses, Gates did not address the one issue I had with the Revolution:  how “white” is the ruling elite of Cuba now?

Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Raul Castro, Camilo Cienfuegos: the main actors of Cuban revolutionary history were as white as Robert E. Lee.  Have any blacks come anywhere close to such positions of power and influence?  In the 53 years since the triumphal march into Havana, how many blacks have sat on the Politburo of the Cuban Communist Party?  How many have sat in the Congress of People’s Power, the rubber-stamp legislature?  How many sit on the Council of Ministers?  Are there any black Cubans in real positions of power in government, in state industries, in diplomacy, or in the armed forces?

In short, how far down the totem pole do we have to go from Fidel and Raul to find a powerful, influential Cuban of color?

As much as the rhetoric says so, there clearly still are haves and have-nots in Cuba.  Gates seemed so caught up in the rah-rah of the social agenda that he neglected to investigate whether a black person in Cuba had any chance of real political or economic power.

Maybe it was too sensitive a topic to fly in the face of Cuban censors.  To have Cubans acknowledge a lack of blacks in power, especially on record, is tantamount to admission of racism, which leads to charges of treason and all the fun activities that come with it.  At the very least, he showcased a black commander in the armed forces and discussed the “whitewashing” of independence hero Antonio Maceo (Did they tell you about the reason his statue’s turned around, Skip?).

Nonetheless, in a place where power is paramount–especially political and military power–to not research African entry into the machinations of the revolutionary state is a grave omission on Gates’ part.

Next week, Gates will be covering the African experience in Brazil.  Although he gets only an hour, I sincerely hope it’s a more prudent use of time.

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Review of Part 1 of PBS’ “Black in Latin America” – Haiti/Dominican Republic

A Tale of Two Countries: Haiti and the Dominican Republic

In a million years, I would never have thought to teach young students about their African heritage—especially as a white teacher.

One of the big roadblocks I’ve always had with students from Latin America (especially the Dominican Republic, where most of my kids are from) is recognizing their complex racial composition.  All too often, it’s a matter of observation: a scan of faces instantly shows the African blood permeating through almost all of them.  From other students, particularly from Mexico or Central and South America, one can notice the strong indigenous nature of their complexion.

Yet when this racial complexity is noted and explained by me, even as someone of Hispanic origin myself, it is met with pushback, denial and outright hostility.  “I’m Dominican, not some ugly Black!” or “I’m no dirty Indian!” is the common response.

(The former statement, by the way, is from a student whose skin is darker than that of the Black students in our school.)

Yesterday, I saw the first part of a 4-part PBS documentary that helped shed light on the complex nature of race in Latin America.  Hosted by Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr.—a scholar who has lately become PBS’ veritable point man on race and ethnicity—Black in Latin America highlights four areas of the hemisphere that have been shaped by African influences.  The first part was of particular importance to me, as it concerned the tense relationship between the two countries of Hispaniola: the Dominican Republic and Haiti.

The difference couldn’t be more startling: on one side, a multiracial society that shuns its African roots and embraces European identity.  On the other lies a society that openly acknowledges and respects its African heritage, and has paid an agonizing price for it.

The Dominican Republic (previously the Spanish colony of Santo Domingo), the oldest Spanish possession in the New World, was also the first to import enslaved Africans as a labor force, especially in the sugar trade.  Yet sugar quickly proved unprofitable, and the economy moved towards cattle ranching.  On the range, the distinctions between enslaved and enslaver slowly dissipated, as intermarriage and cultural intermingling created a society that associated itself primarily as landowners, hence the magnetism towards Spain.

Gates points out the heroes and patriots that grace the squares of Santo Domingo—almost all are white Europeans, and the mulattos (or mixed-race persons) had their features Anglicized according to local prejudices.   Although 90% of Dominicans have some African ancestry, it is an ancestry pushed to the background in the name of national identity and consciousness.  It is only recently that many Dominicans have even begun to discover and analyze their African roots.

This “whitewashing” of Dominican identity was also influenced by its relations to its western neighbor.  Haiti occupied Santo Domingo for 22 years, attempting to Francify the population.  Upon independence in 1844, Dominican identity crystallized: anything Haitian, Creole, even African was considered low and inferior.  When sugar was re-established as a commodity in the late 19th century, it was migrant Haitians who did the cane-cutting.  Dominicans looked on these newcomers with derision, a hatred that resulted in the horrific massacre of over 15,000 Haitians in 1937.

Haiti seems almost the exact opposite.  Even amongst the rubble and poverty of Port-au-Prince, the statues of Haitian heroes are almost all Black.  Haitian culture, language and music pay open homage to Africa, whereas Dominican culture only tacitly recognized its African antecedents.  Though both countries are Roman Catholic, Haiti also is a center for voodoo, a religion based on African and Catholic influences—a religion that helped united Blacks from various parts of Africa to begin the unthinkable: a large-scale slave revolt.

Haiti, a former French colony (Saint-Domengue, once the richest in the New World), was born not out of a struggle against its neighbor, but out of a slave rebellion that had far-reaching influence.  Starting in 1791, the enslaved Africans of Saint-Domengue revolted against their French masters in the first successful slave rebellion in the Americas.   One gruesome after-effect of the revolt—the massacre of the French masters on the island—made sure that even with many mixed-race Haitians, the culture of the country would focus not towards Europe, but towards Africa.

This independent spirit just could not stand, according to the slaveholding powers of France, Great Britain and especially the United States.  Through embargoes, economic strangulation and outright military intervention, Haiti has paid a dear price for daring to exist as an independent nation of Africans.  Political instability, poverty, corruption—these are but a sampling of the abuses suffered by Haitians since independence.  Yet through all these hardships, Haitians are still immensely proud of who they are, and especially where they came from.

The show is extremely important to educators who teach multiracial classrooms, especially those with Latin American immigrants.  While the episodes are a little too short (I really wished for two hours to really go in-depth), the first episode gives an important synopsis of how race affects societies in the New World.  Thus, it also gives a window on how students view their own racial identity, and why they treat their ancestry in such complex ways.

Going back to my classroom, my Dominican students came from a culture where race was not confronted head-on, as it is in the United States.  Their identity is based on their nationality, which was based on ties to former colonial powers and shunning of more “Africanized” neighbors.  Yet it is important for them to see the complete picture of themselves, which may be very uncomfortable given their ingrained prejudices.

Race, or racial identity, often needs to be taught outright in order to be recognized.  As Dominicans, these kids may have given lip service to Africans of the past, but nothing more.  As Americans, it is important for them to acknowledge and embrace a culture that is theirs, whether they like it or not.

There is no shame in being of African descent.

Whether or not that sentiment can permeate the wall of Dominican identity remains to be seen.

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History and Gaming: a review of PBS’ Mission: US

Over the years, video games have attempted to enter the realm of history.  More often than not, the history was sacrificed for the video game.

In my youth, crude games such as Oregon Trail or the more nuanced fact-finding adventures of the Carmen Sandiego series proliferated the market.  They attempted to give useful content information in the guise of video entertainment; the product was often less than the sum of its parts.  Carmen Sandiego games could be completed with a little patience and the guidebook it came with—I did it without the book, but that’s just empty bragging.

As games became more advanced graphically and structurally, companies attempted to fuse historical elements into the realm of “role-playing” adventures—stories where the player actively makes decisions about the characters in the story a la Dungeons and Dragons.  The late 1990s and early 2000s produced a slew of role-playing games with a historical bent: Sid Maier’s Civilization, the Age of Empires series, Caesar, Call of Duty etc.  The games were long, complex, and varied, giving players a great degree of flexibility in play and scenario development.

Unfortunately, the history often stopped at the characters themselves. 

Most of these games juxtaposed characters and weapons from vastly different regions and time periods in absurd situations: Age of Empires was the worst culprit in this.  How did the Ancient Greeks develop siege cannons and musketeers, all of a sudden?  And when did Mongols ever attack Mayan temples?  One cheat code even involved a sports car with a machine gun barreling down mounted knights and assorted foot soldiers. 

Thus the conundrum: how to create a complex, exciting gaming experience while providing factual, rich content in history.  PBS may have found the answer.

Co-sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities, Mission: US  is an interactive multimedia game where students play the role of individual actors in American history.  Although not without its flaws, it is a notable first step in the creation of viable and academically rigorous gaming for social studies.

PBS has launched the first mission of the game, “For Crown or Colony”, as a beta-tester so that teachers and students can give feedback on the game.  Once you register as a teacher or student (registration is free), you can begin by either the streaming web game or downloading the game onto your hard drive. 

You play as the role of Nathaniel “Nat” Wheeler, a 14 year old printer’s apprentice in Boston in the winter of 1770.  The game starts as Nat leaves his Uxbridge, Massachussets farm for his apprenticeship.  Along the way, the player must choose Nat’s motions, thoughts and actions—similar to Legend of Zelda and other early role-playing games. 

As Nat continues his life in Boston, he encounters people from all walks of life, from enslaved African and poet Phyllis Wheatley to patriot silversmith Paul Revere (improbable, I know, but such is the video game world.).  Nat’s actions will ultimately lead to the fateful Boston Massacre, and the ending of the story depends on the choices the player makes: whether Nat joins the Patriot cause, whether he stays out of the chaos, or whether he espouses Loyalist sympathies.

In each phase of the mission, players collect inventory and vocabulary that allow the player to learn more about the everyday life of colonists in the 1700s.  Furthermore, through the Classroom Guide, teachers can access exercises, lesson plans, and other educational materials to supplement.  There’s even a cute side-game a player can unlock: A Guitar Hero-type game where you can play patriotic tunes on a pennywhistle.

As a piece of interactive education, Mission: US covers most of the bases of the time period.  The characters, though, look ripped out of a Japanese cartoon.  Without color tinting, there would be little real difference between Phyllis Wheatley and Mercy Otis Warren.  Then there’s the dialogue: forgive my ignorance, but why must everyone speak perfect middle-America English?  Isn’t this New England?  Where’s the dropped R’s and the drawn out vowels?

While the animation is crisp, there is very little real action: most of the game is spent conversing with various denizens of Boston.  The action is limited to cinematic set-pieces like the Boston Massacre, and Nat as a player can’t get involved.  Wouldn’t it be cool to wing an oyster shell right on the kisser of a redcoat?

Hence the primary drawback of Mission: US—the lack of action for a demographic that demands more action.  PBS is gearing this series towards grades 5-8.  I know 3rd graders who’ll bore themselves quickly from this.  The 10-13 year old requires more virtual action and connection with the material.  Unfortunately, they get this through games such as Grand Theft Auto, which are hardly instructional.   

This first installment works well to introduce the format.  Getting the students’ attention, though, is another matter.  Future installments will have to make the player a more visceral actor in the storyline, making more complex choices.  If there is action or danger, the player should be actively involved—most current video games have a central actor that acts much more than he/she communicates.

Most importantly, future installments have to at least tickle the sensory needs of young pre-adolescents with hints of PG violence or adventure.  The waiting, talking and walking is what made me give up on Zelda.  It won’t work much better in a game designed to teach American history as well as entertain.

On the other hand, making a realistic video game about subjects like the French and Indian War or the Crusades could make Grand Theft Auto look like Pac-Man.

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Calling all Critics: Need Help with Monday’s PBS series “We Shall Remain”

Tecumseh (1768-1813)

Tecumseh (1768-1813)

I feel bad about welching on a promise, but unforeseen circumstances limited my viewing of “We Shall Remain”, the PBS miniseries detailing the Native American experience in the United States. 

Monday’s episode featured Tecumseh, the great Shawnee leader who created a Native confederacy in the Old Northwest Territory to combat encroaching white settlement in the early decades of our Republic.  Inspired by visions from his older brother, known as the Shawnee Prophet, Tecumseh would lead a 30 year long guerrilla struggle against white American settlers, culminating in his death in 1813, during the war of 1812.

Now, based on all that, it would look like I saw the whole thing.  Well, because of the inclement weather in the Tri-State area, my local PBS affiliate blacked out for extended periods of time during the broadcast.  Thus, I cannot in good conscience provide a review of the episode.  I’m now opening to my fellow amateur historians in the Neighborhood.  If any of you would like to post your reviews of this week’s episode, please feel free to do so.  I hope we can have some great opinions on this, as the series is shaping up to be a good one.

Next week’s episode encounters the forced removal of the Choctaws, the Seminoles, and most importantly the Cherokees from their ancestral homelands in the Southeastern United States during the early 1830s.  Hopefully PBS/Thirteen in New York will get its act together by then.  Until then, I’m looking forward to your opinions.

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Review of Yesterday’s PBS series “We Shall Remain” Part 1

From reading the reviews on other news outlets, it would seem that part 1 of the PBS series “We Shall Remain” was supposed to be the weakest.  If this is the weakest, then the rest of the series must be incredible.

I was impressed by this portrayal of early colonial interactions between Native Americans and incoming English settlers.  For once, a show focused on the interdependence between the Wampanoag and the English, and how this relationship would evolve as their populations change.  As I said in my previous post, the Native Americans had an upper hand on the early settlements, largely due to population.  This would change as the English settler population grew, much to the detriment of the Native peoples of New England.

I am particularly pleased at their treatment of events leading up to King Philip’s War (1675-1676).  What was important to notice is how the early interdependence of these two peoples led to a mingling of cultures that was both genuine and unsettling.  Metacom, the aforementioned “King Philip”, was a Wampanoag who lived in two worlds, enjoying prestige and respect in both English and Native circles.  This was not uncommon–many early settlements involved close interaction between cultures, such as the Mohawks and settler colonies in northern New York.

When it comes to whites, the facts are meant to speak for themselves.  The groups that came to America came with different motives and different experiences when encountering Native peoples.  One this is absolutely clear, however: they were here to stay, and more were coming.  This fact, the numbers game, is the crux of the argument: although Native peoples were able to share the land with a few hundred English settlers, the tide of colonization meant that that this arrangement could not continue long.  What drove the Natives from their lands were the desire for land from a people who valued land as a measure of societal status.  

I’ll be looking forward to the next part of the series, which deals with Tecumseh and his Native confederacy.  Even though I understand the need to select particular stories in this narrative, there are stories that are missing.  As a New Yorker, I would’ve liked to see more of the Haudenosaunee confederacy, the Dutch interaction with Native Americans, and their role in the French and Indian War.  Maybe I ask too much…I’m no director, after all.

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Upcoming Miniseries of Native Americans on PBS

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"After the Mayflower," the first of five installments of "We Shall Remain," focuses on the initial relationship between the Indians and English settlers. (©Webb Chappelle)

The last thing a teacher on vacation wants to do is learn.  However, I’ll make an exception tonight.

On PBS, at 9 PM Eastern, the American Experience series will begin a 5 part miniseries entitled “We Shall Remain.”  It details the story of Native American culture since European settlement, covering the early colonial wars, the War of 1812, the later Indian Wars of the 1870s, and finally at Wounded Knee–both in 1890 and in the 1973 standoff.

I’m interested in seeing this since much of my content on American history deals with the interaction with Native Americans.  Teachers of history often have a difficult time with the native experience.  Many of the older generation tend to focus most on European and later white American leaders, achievements and trends, relegating the Native peoples of North America to a footnote.  Even worse are those who openly cast aspersions on Natives as “backward,” “primitive,” “barbarian,” or even “the losers of history.”

Yet today many educators are swinging in the exact opposite direction, which is not always beneficial.  Many teachers will dwell on Native American culture ad infinitum, dragging out their curriculum to include every tribe under the sun.  There are several reasons for this.  Native American lore and culture, unlike most American history, is the most tactile and “hands-on”.  It involves objects, art and crafting that keep children actively engaged, especially since Johnny can’t sit still for five minutes–let alone the time it takes to read the Declaration of Independence.

Also, many teachers find Native Americans to be an “easy” subject in social studies.  They feel that all Native culture is crafts and art projects–thus they fulfilled their social studies requirement.  Let the kids run around with feathers on their paper headbands and make totem poles out of half-pint milk cartons, since there’s no need to study anything about conflict or social structure, even written documents.  Administrators fall into this trap, too: bulletin boards of tepees and wampum mean that these children “understood” and “internalized” Native American culture and values.

Lastly, Native American studies are dragged out all year out of a false sense of guilt and recompense.  Many more liberal-minded colleagues have stated that focusing on Native Americans is to make up for the years of neglect and half-truths in American classrooms.  Thus, Natives are studied at the exclusion of all else–including the white Europeans. 

There can be no doubt that the depictions of Native Americans has changed through the decades.  We can also not dispute that the Native American has been done a grave disservice by the distortions and outright lies propogated by educators in the past.   However, it would also be wrong to create another myth in people’s minds: that the Native Americans lived a wonderful, Eden-like existence which was brutally crushed by whites.  This depiction lacks the nuance and complexity that is American history, and it’s that nuance that makes the stories of both Europeans and Native peoples so profound.

The destruction and dispersal of Native Americans did not happen overnight.  It occurred over centuries where relations between whites and natives changed and evolved.  We often forget that, at least in the very beginning, Native Americans had the upper hand in early negotiations with whites, both in numbers and in geographic knowledge (firearm technology would not be a real factor until the mid-1700s).  Those first groups of Europeans were small, and required an interdependence on Native peoples simply to survive. 

 It is when the Natives began to lose the numbers game to the Europeans–be it by immigration, disease, wars–that their story turned tragic.  Yet their story is not the same across the hemisphere.  It is even more tragic in the Caribbean, as geographic isolation and European encroachment caused the near-extinction of the Taino, Arawak and Carib peoples.  Yet Central and South America are a different story.  These areas, with the exception of the Southern Cone of Argentina, Uruguay and Chile, never had the massive numbers of European colonists as in North America.  Furthermore, the Native population was much larger, which is why today these areas, especially in the Andes, have a large and vocal Native population. 

Yet today’s PBS special, and most of our curricula, focus on the North American story, and what a story it is.  You don’t even need the Europeans for a starting point–how about the land-bridge story of the first peoples crossing from Asia some 10,000 years ago.  The early foundations of the Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois, confederacy is vital as well.  This debunks the myth of Native as a savage: for at least three centuries, the tribes of northern New York State had a centralized government, a constitution, established settlements, and a tributary empire stretching from the Ohio River to present day Maine.  The Cherokee, considered a “civilized” tribe, developed a written language, literature, journalism and a common government. 

Even the personalities are amazing to study:  Deyganawidah and Hiawatha, the founders of the Iroquois Confederacy.  Powhatan, a powerful chief of the tribes along the Chesepeake.  Massasoit, Squanto, Metuxet and the other Wampanoag who interacted with the English at Plymouth, for good or ill.  Pontiac, Tecumseh, Red Jacket, Geronimo, Chief Joseph, Sitting Bull, Joseph Brant—the list goes on and on.

Yet its most important to remember that although we can debate the effects of the encounter between Europeans and Native peoples, we cannot dispute that it happened.  Thus we must be as honest as possible with the effects as well as the events of these times.  It does both sides no good to succumb to generalizations and patronizing for the sake of some nationalist ideal or even for sake of guilt or shame.  We must try as hard as we can to see things the way they are, and look at them on those terms.

I hope the Neighborhood will be watching PBS tonight as I will.  Tomorrow will see a review of tonight’s episode.

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