A critique of Skip Gates' Africa show by Ali A. Mazrui

David Altman altman_d at SPAMhotmail.com
Fri Dec 3 10:26:09 MST 1999

As a followup to Louis' posting of Ali Mazrui's article, I'm attaching a
critique which appeared in "Ishmael Reed's Konch Magazine."


My wife, who is from Nigeria, and I did not get to see all of the Gates
series, but our reactions during the portions we did see were much the same
as Mazrui's and Hamod's.  This despite the fact that I would disagree with
these two individuals on any number of things, and I have long respected
Gates.  Gates for the most part comes off in the series as a jerk and a
first-class "ugly American."  One small observation: throughout the series
Gates makes much of his Harvard connections - this while dressed in a
sweatshirt and safari shorts!  No African college professor would dress in
such a manner.  If fact, in Nigeria at least only small children dress this
way!  I'm sure his hosts must have thought him quite mad.

David Altman


Ishmael Reed's Konch magazine

Henry Louis Gates'
Strange African Odyssey
by H. S. Hamod

It's hard to imagine that Henry Louis Gates is a chaired full-professor at
Harvard University; he did not show well for Harvard in his PBS-BBC
documentary Wonders of the African World. As an academician, as a man of
color and as a Muslim, I say to "professor" Gates, "Shame on you and shame
on those who allowed you to put this bumbling show on the air."

I was shocked at Gates' lack of preparedness; he stumbled along like someone
who had never dealt with people from another culture. His rudeness toward
African cultures, among the Muslims in Sudan and toward the Christians in
Ethiopia were answered best by the religious men of Ethiopia when he kept
pressing them on the Ark of the Covenant-- their response, in essence was
"you may be clever, but you are not wise." In fact, one of the religious
leaders called him "clever" but not "wise." Gates' lack of humility and
respect was evident.

He continually called everyone, "brother"-- but it was more insulting than
sincere; many of them looked at him with puzzlement--especially since they
obviously saw the camera crew filming his every move and word. His desire to
put the Arabs and Islam down was evident; even when the Ashanti and others
in Ghana, Sudan, and Mali explained to him that slavery was more of an
indentured servant position--nothing like the slavery visited upon Africans
by the Portuguese, Spanish and Americans. His attack on "the white man" was
weakened when he found that without the assistance of the chiefs, there
would have been no slaves for sale because no white men could go into the
jungles to search or capture people.

There was a dignity among the Africans he met; much more than the casual
sloppiness of Gates. At a certain point, one of the African women, a
descendent of a slaver, told Gates that he should get on with his life and
quit trying to make everyone feel any further guilt for the terrible slave
trade. At this point, one could understand her point; at the same time, this
obsession of Gates' helps explain and define his life. But he's an
interesting contradiction; he desires to be seen as a scholar, but the way
he handled his travel, and his lack of knowledge of Africa aside from
Timbuktu, South Africa, and Greater Zimbabwe showed a lack of discipline and
a lack of respect for the culture, history, and people he visited. Most of
the scholars he talked with made him sound like a high school kid. This was
especially evident in his West African travels and in Ethiopia. The people
he attempted to tussle with brushed his babbling aside like the flies they
deal with everyday. I felt Gates shamed us all by his inane questions and
his constant attempt to put guilt on the present-day Africans for a past
that they did not make. I am sure many of those who met with him must wonder
how good American education is if Gates is held up as a great scholar, a
Harvard professor, and scholar at that! Will Harvard ever live this down?
Actually, as he kept saying, he was from the mountains of West Virginia--and
it showed in his behavior; especially in contrast to the nobility of the
Africans with whom he spoke. Unfortunately, Mr. Gates was arrogant,
disingenuous, and could hardly mask his agendas: putting guilt on the
Africans whose forefathers were part of the slave trade, his disdain and
dislike of Islam and his desire to show what a "brother" he was to all men
of color.

Unfortunately, "somehow" he "forgot to stop" in Nigeria (the largest nation
in Africa) and in addition, he rarely discussed the intellectual ferment in
Africa (pretending that it didn't, and doesn't exist). It's too bad that
only "anointed intellectuals" like Gates are allowed to get the funding and
the time space on PBS for such shows. But enough of this; let's go on.

At one point, I thought, maybe Gates was trying to pull a Mark Twain ala
Innocents Abroad--but then I realized, he had neither the wit, learning or
intelligence of a Mark Twain; no, Gates was just a plain bumbler. What he
also failed to realize is that for a person to survive and to prosper in the
Third World, that person has to be intelligent, wise and cunning.
Unfortunately, Gates did not understand this. Nor did he fully understand
the customs of the countries; I felt they treated him with respect;
unfortunately, he did not reciprocate in a proper fashion.

He also failed to see that in Egypt, Sudan and in the other Muslim
countries--the races are mixed and they do not see things in black and white
as they do in the U.S. He kept talking about "black Africans" even while
talking to people who were golden, brown, tan, black and white--all of them
Africans for generations. His obsession with slavery and his own racial
myopia did not serve him well; it was if he took his racial stereotypes with
him and was unable to give them up. It wasn't until he got to Timbuktu that
he finally began to show respect for his host country; however, once again,
he didn't want to give the Muslims credit for the famed University of
Timbuktu. Islam's first dictum in the Qur'an is, "read and understand."
Islam in the llth through the l7th century had the world's leading
universities. When examining the books that a scholar had preserved from the
library of Timbuktu, Gates took great pains to ignore the Arabic writing in
the books and the Islamic genesis of this great university. Certainly it was
African, but it was also Islamic and the lingua franca of the culture was
Arabic (as was evident in the texts seen and on the boards the children
learned the Qur'an from). Gates came with anti-Islamic and anti- Arab
stereotypes and he played them to the hilt. It was obvious that when he
said, "Assalamu Alaikum" that he didn't feel it in his soul. In fact, a
truly soulful respect for Africa was the important component missing in this

I could go on with criticism, but I would rather thank him for the
photography that showed many people historical and some contemporary urban
centers of Africa. The images of Ghana, Egypt, Sudan, Mali, Timbuktu and
Greater Zimbabwe were worth putting up with Gates. In fact, after a while, I
had to laugh because I couldn't believe the stupidity I was witnessing on
his part--but it was a laugh of embarrassment for him and a cutting laugh of
anger at his biases and his inability to appreciate the cultures of Africa
for what they were and what they are today. I've certainly lost a lot of
respect for Harvard, the BBC and PBS for allowing this amateur to get away
with this; it could have been a wonderful show had Gates been more of a true
scholar. I can see and hear some of my former colleagues from the African
Studies and the Afro American Studies Departments venting their anger and
frustration at this debacle. I also have to credit him with a decent section
on Greater Zimbabwe and on South Africa--but before that part of the series,
forget it.

In summary, there are three images that will remain with me:         1. The
descendent of a slaver in Ghana telling him that he should get over carrying
the slave banner to lay upon the Africans;       2. The head of the
Ethiopian church telling Gates that it didn't matter to him whether Gates
believed the Ark of the Covenant was in Ethiopian possession, that he
didnít' have to prove anything to Gates; and  3. The Ethiopian priest who
guarded the Ark of the Covenant who told Gates, "You may be clever" but that
Gates lacked true wisdom and that he was free to believe whatever he wanted
about the Ark of the Covenant (all of this much to Gates' dismay--after all,
here he was, gracing them with his Harvard big-shot presence).

As the former publisher and editor of Third World News, and having traveled
extensively in Africa, I was embarrassed and insulted by the show; his lack
of respect, his lack of humility in the face of the hospitality he was
offered, his "cute" comments that put the countries down, his lack of
knowledge and preparation for such an important trip-- all I can say is,
"What a shame, what a sham!"

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