October 19, 1998 12:00 PM

PBS (Mon.-Thurs., Oct. 19-22, 8 p.m. ET)

Show of the week

“In 1793, Thomas Jefferson was Secretary of State and the owner of over 130 human beings,” says narrator Angela Bassett early in Part 3 of this compelling six-hour documentary. For viewers who can’t bring themselves to think of the Sage of Monticello as a slaveholder, Africans in America provides a needed course in remedial history. But it’s more than the story of American slavery. The program looks at America, from the early 1600s to the Civil War, through the eyes of the country’s slaves. It juxtaposes the brutality of bondage with the prodigious growth of a nation whose economy was powered in part by unfree labor. It measures the meaningfulness of America’s egalitarian ideals by the country’s response to the slaves who struggled to throw off the yoke and the abolitionists who fought to end the owning of black human beings. “Who better to define freedom than a slave?” asks black writer John Edgar Wideman in Part 4. “Our sense of freedom was…like a fire inside of us.” Africans in America burns with it.

Bottom Line: A vital, valuable documentary

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