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`The Promised Land' Connects Personal Sagas to Sweep of History

EVEN now, decades later, Florida Denton's eyes light up when she talks about coming to Chicago from the cotton fields of the South.

Chicago was the promised land, a place with lights and traffic and even a little bit of hope. More than 5 million people like Ms. Denton trekked from the rural South to cities in the North in the 1940s through the 1960s, driven by joblessness resulting from the mechanical cottonpicker and lured by the industrial boom of the North.

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That movement of African-Americans was the greatest peacetime migration in world history, and for the first time TV is telling the story on the major scale it deserves.

Denton's is one of many voices heard on the Discovery Channel's five-hour documentary ``The Promised Land,'' debuting Sunday, Feb. 12 (9-11 p.m.) and continuing through Wednesday, from 10-11 p.m. each night.

Its producers got the idea from Nicholas Lemann's 1991 book of the same name. Breadth and personal insight are gained through moving memories of people who lived through those times. The show draws these links over and over from the generic to the personal, small threads tying viewers to the sweep of the big story.

``The situation there was bleak,'' Sterling Plumpp told me. ``A lot of hard work, no money. And I don't need to tell you about the laws.'' Mr. Plumpp is a professor of African-American Studies at the University of Illinois in Chicago and also a poet of ``the Southern experience.'' He lived this story. Born in the Mississippi Delta, he worked in the cotton fields until he was 15, watched his family migrate North, then came to Chicago himself in 1962.

Plumpp thinks the series is an important history lesson for young blacks as well as whites. ``After the move, many African-Americans adopted what I would call `historical amnesia,''' he states. ``They wanted to completely get out of their minds the painful experience of being second-class, being `dirty sharecroppers,' sounding uneducated, with the groans and the moans. They wanted to begin anew.''

Life anew is powerfully conveyed as the series takes viewers into the factories and stores and modest homes of the brave new northern world. The production underscores the differences with images of urban light and glitter that contrast sharply with the gray footage used to document the rural South. Evocative jazz, soul, and blues make for a meaningful sound track, and the rich voice of narrator Morgan Freeman seems to embody the spirit of the people.

The man in charge of it all is a Briton named Anthony Geffen. He had been a producer at the BBC - which co-produced ``The Promised Land'' - and ``was in the process of becoming an independent,'' explains W. Clark Bunting, who is in charge of programming for Discovery. ```The Promised Land' was a project that was grandfathered in.''

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That's fine with Plumpp. ''It would have been very difficult for an American to have done this documentary,'' he says, ``whether white or black.'' A white might feel some link to the racism of the past, he explains. An African-American would have trouble with amnesia about the period.

GEFFEN says, ``The people we spoke with said, `We're telling you things we wouldn't tell either black or white folk in America. You're outsiders, and we felt we can relate more of the story to you.'

``We were constantly under pressure to tell positive stories and present black role models, but that's very dangerous,'' he adds, ``and we wanted to tell it as it was.''

This approach is the right way to put history on TV, according to Ross Paulson, a professor of American History at Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill.

``The problem producers finally solved,'' he says, ``is how not to do it. They used to try to reconstruct history through reenactment. It was terribly expensive and sometimes phony. But they've learned, finally, to let the past speak for itself. If they can personalize it, it works best.''

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