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Exploring History: Black Networks and Organizations

Exploring History: Black Networks and Organizations

Officers of Women’s League, Newport, Rhode Island
Officers of Women’s League, Newport, Rhode Island
Library of Congress

By CHRISTINE CASATELLI

Throughout history, African Americans have created a dynamic community and culture that flourished beyond the color line. Making Black America: Through the Grapevine celebrates those places and institutions that were forged in their own image as acts of resistance and expressions of joy. The four-part series airs Tuesdays in October at 9pm on GBH 2. The series is available on GBH Passport starting October 4.

The term “the grapevine telegraph,” created by Booker T. Washington, refers to the formal and informal networks that have connected Black Americans for centuries. They served not just as a way to communicate but also as a means to strengthen and support their communities.

"This is the story of the making of Black America and how, in the making, a people did more than survive the onslaught of enslavement and segregation,” said Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the program’s host, writer and executive producer. “They redefined America and its cultural gifts to the world.”

The four-part series chronicles the history of these vast social, fraternal and intellectual organizations—starting with the establishment of the Prince Hall Masons in 1775 through the formation of all-Black towns and business districts to the development of Black literary societies and theater companies. It highlights the role of historically Black colleges and universities as a protected enclave for Black students and a place to make key connections for future success. It also cites the social media phenomenon of Black Twitter where the same type of networking continues today.

Gates worked on the series with award-winning directors Shayla Harris and Stacey L. Holman, both of whom were collaborators on his 2021 documentary series The Black Church: This is Our Story, This is Our Song.

“The grapevine is like an unspoken language where you don’t have to explain yourself, but people get it,” Harris said. “It’s a kind of code that allows people to see and be seen, but by other folks who understand their history, their culture and the places and spaces they come from,” she said.

Harris said this series is different from other films she has produced on the Black experience.

“African American history is often looked at through the lens of struggle, but there is something really compelling about this film,” she said. “It’s a celebration of certain things that helped the community survive—and it taught me a lot about my own personal history that I didn’t know or appreciate,” she said.

For example, the film recounts the history of Black fraternal organization Prince Hall Masons and its sister organization, the Eastern Stars, Harris said. “My grandmother was an Eastern Star, and as a kid I remember her being dressed in her regalia and going to conferences and holding leadership positions—it was just something she did,” she said. “But working on this series, I learned more about this organization that she was part of.”

The film also explores the concept of Black Joy—a feeling of acceptance and belonging as a member of a community. Holman described how she experienced Black Joy as a college student at Dillard University in New Orleans.

“I went to a historically Black university, and the first time I stepped on that campus, seeing just all the incredible, beautiful Black faces, I knew I was at home.” Holman said.

Each episode showcases the many spaces and organizations where Black Joy thrives. “It speaks to those moments and times, when people just need to—as we say in the series—go behind what W.E.B. Du Bois called “the veil” and step away from the White gaze,” she said.

Throughout the film, Gates pauses his historic narration to sit among noted scholars, politicians, cultural leaders and old friends—including journalist Charles M. Blow, political activist Angela Davis, actor André Holland and others—to discuss what type of world has existed behind the color line and what it looks like today. The settings for their conversations include barber shops, card games and other places where Black Americans have traditionally gathered to socialize and talk about issues that impact their world.

In the 21st century, there are still many of the same issues that have existed for decades—economic disenfranchisement, anti-Black violence, racial discrimination— but today’s Black community is facing them without many of the institutions that have sustained them in the past, Gates said.

Now more than ever, it’s important to keep these networks alive because without them, there is no safety net, said Holman. “Without these organizations, the falls are harder, the disappointments are greater, the recovery is harder,“ she said. “Those networks provide resources. They provide hope and a listening ear,” she said.

Even though some Black organizations have faded away, Harris said that new ones are taking their place. “You think of something like Black Lives Matter, which isn’t necessarily like a formal organization, but still a lot of people can plug into it,” she said. “So, I think they may transform how they look, but they will continue in a lot of different ways.”