The Problem With Henry Louis Gates’ ‘African World’
The beautiful African coastline in Ghana is studded with the haunted vestiges of slave fortresses built by European nations over a period of 400 years. It is not unlike the history of the European Slave Trade in other parts of West Africa, from Mauritania to Angola, where more than 600 slave ports were constructed by Europeans to support the rape of Africa.
Yet, if one listens closely to Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr., the entire project of slavery would not have occurred if it had not been for African involvement. Blaming the victim for the predicament of enslavement is neither historically correct nor morally valid.
“The Wonders of the African World” television series, which premiered last month on the Public Broadcasting Service, was co-sponsored by the British Broadcasting Corp. Hosted by Professor Gates, it is one more attempt to rewrite the history of slavery. Despite the magnificence of the African landscape and the vitality of its modern cities, Gates finds opportunity at almost every turn to reduce the history of Africa to petty warfare and the history of the enslavement of millions of Africans to African culpability.
If Gates were White, commenting as he did on African society, making jokes about dignitaries and sowing seeds of division between African people, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the National Association of Black School Educators and a host of civil rights leaders would have considered this production an insult and an assault on African people. However, because Gates is Black and a scholar, we must call it a travesty. This travesty will set back the intellectual discourse on the African enslavement for 50 years if the narrative is not corrected to show that you cannot reduce the centuries of the Asante Empire, the Dahomey and the Yoruba kingdoms to slave raiding.
Nowhere in “The Wonders of the African World” do we get the theme of African resistance to slavery when in fact Africans fought, if you take European accounts, more than 300 battles with European slave raiders and occupiers both in the interior and along the coast of Africa.
There are several disturbing themes that flow from Gates’ core argument about slavery that must be confronted head-on.
First, Gates’ argues that continental Africans are responsible for enslavement of Africans in the Americas and Caribbean. He marshals opinions from ordinary Africans about African involvement, instead of from scholarly experts on the subject. What is true is that some Africans were collaborators with Whites in South Africa. However, we do not blame apartheid on South African Blacks and Gates would not claim that because some Jews assisted the Germans that Jews were responsible for the holocaust.
Slavery was initiated and maintained by Europeans; Africans were always on the fringes of this monumental catastrophe. Indeed, in any situation where people are seeking to liberate themselves, you will have those who side with the oppressor. It is not just a historical reality; it is a current fact.
Secondly, Gates succeeds at trivializing the traditional rituals and practices of Africa. He makes snide remarks about African practices of state, medicine and ornamentation. The disrespect shown to the traditional leaders of Africa left an indelible impression of arrogance and haughtiness, perhaps the results of a post-modern disparagement of culture and customs.
Thirdly, “The Wonders of the African World” reinforces the stereotypes first created by the European travelers going down the Niger River in their pith helmets — that Africa is backward, inadequate, scary, and not a place any where African American would want to be. His vehicle breaks down and it is a major production. I have lived in Africa, traveled to the continent more than 50 times and this is not a common experience of African Americans traveling in Africa. Why was this event not edited out of the video since it is not a remarkable fact except if you want to leave an impression of African inefficiency?
I see this series as a clear assault on the African and African American narrative of liberation. Much like Keith Richburg’s “Out of America,” Gates’ “The Wonders of the African World” is more about the author’s own story than about Africa. This is seen in an almost obscene assertion of American superiority — a Harvard scholar who not once speaks to an African scholar at one of the elite universities on the continent.
Despite Gates’ flippant commentaries, this is not a benign travelogue; it is a documentary that mocks African culture, distorts African history, reinforces stereotypes, and imports American racist interpretations to African situations. This is truly a Eurocentric enterprise.
— Dr. Molefi Kete Asante is a professor of African American studies at Temple University. He has directed 63 doctoral dissertations, is the founder of the first Ph.D. program in African American studies and is one of the most prolific of African American authors of scholarly books.
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