Seeing the 'Wonders of Africa' through fresh eyes

Henry Louis Gates Jr. was born in Piedmont, W.Va., two hours up the Potomac River from the nation's capital. But that firm grounding on American terra firma has not prevented him from pursuing a knowledge of the land of his ancestors - Africa. In a new six-part, six-hour series, PBS and the Harvard professor take viewers on an exotic and eye-opening trip through the natural and man-made highlights of that vast continent.

"Wonders of the African World with Henry Louis Gates Jr." will air Monday through Wednesday, Oct. 25 to 27, in an attempt at what Dr. Gates calls an African version of another landmark series.

"I thought it would be great if we could do a black version of [Kenneth Clark's groundbreaking series] 'Civilization,' but with a little more energy and zip perhaps than Sir Kenneth allowed himself to manifest on camera."

Zip is one thing that this show has in abundance, from the hearty humor with which Gates approaches interview subjects to the breadth of the travel for a single show. "My journeys took me from Zanzibar to Tombouctou, from the Nile River Valley to Great Zimbabwe, from the slave coast of Ghana to the medieval monasteries of Ethiopia," Gates says, all in search of what he calls the wonders of the African world.

As to what drove an American-born black man to take such a journey, Gates says it was an outgrowth of his own childhood curiosity about the continent.

"Most people think that, in Africa, our ancestors and our African cousins have no great traditions," says the Africa scholar. "And it's not only a popular idea; it was an idea at the height of the [18th century] Enlightenment that was embraced by [David] Hume and [Immanuel] Kant and Thomas Jefferson, and even by [Georg Wilhelm Friedrich] Hegel." They all said that "there was no civilization in Africa."

Gates disputes those philosophers contentions by noting that one of the high points of the trip involved the discovery of nearly 50,000 ancient volumes "written by black men, in the Arabic language." The books had never been filmed before this documentary, Gates says. "Most scholars have never even seen them," he adds.

Selected in 1997 by Time magazine as one of America's most influential people, Gates says that despite having spent significant amounts of time in Africa prior to filming, "In the process of making this film, I was discovering new African countries."

For instance, he says, he had never been to the Sudan or Egypt. Another highlight of his travels was historical as well as contemporary. He'd heard about Nubia all his life and never was quite sure what it was or where because so many African Americans use it interchangeably as a word for Egypt, or black Egyptians. "To be able to go there, and to be able to film the pyramids where 40 generations of black pharaohs and black queens are buried, was quite amazing for me," he says.

Other dramatic moments include visits to the church that Ethiopians believe holds the Ark of the Covenant. It is guarded by a single man whose entire life is devoted to the cause.

By train, boat, small plane, and jeep, Gates visits destinations in Egypt to the most remote outposts of the Sudanese desert. The resonance of the names calls out to the uninitiated for further exploration: the Nile, Tombouctou, Khartoum, Zanzibar.

Yet, beneath that exotic veneer lurk many important historical issues such as the personally painful truth for Gates that the thriving slave trade to Europe and the Americas wouldn't have happened without the active participation of black Africans.

It is this sort of going beneath the surface that Gates, the director of the W.E.B. DuBois Institute for Afro-American Research, hopes will raise public consciousness about Africa.

"Television is potentially a great medium for ameliorating the social ills of our society," Gates says. "It's not what it's meant only to do, but it's one of the things that it can do. I hope this series can be even a small contribution to that end, to ending the ignorance about Africa."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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