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

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Sun Oct 31 09:16:51 MST 1999



October 28, 1999

A PRELIMINARY CRITIQUE OF THE TV SERIES by HENRY LOUIS GATES, JR.

By Ali A. Mazrui <amazrui at binghamton.edu>

Since I have myself done a television series about Africa, perhaps I
should keep quiet about Skip Gates' WONDERS OF THE AFRICAN WORLD
especially since I agreed to write a blurb for his companion book. I saw
the book as a special *African-American view of Africa*. But I had not
seen the TV series when I wrote the blurb for the book. In any case Skip
is a friend with whom I have profound disagreements.

I believe the TV series is more divisive than the book. The first TV
episode sings the glories of ancient Nubia (understandably) but at the
expense of dis-Africanizing ancient Egypt. On the evidence of a European
guide, Gates allows ancient Egyptians to become racist whites trampling
underfoot Blacks from Upper Nile. Are ancient Egyptians no longer
Africans?

The second episode of the TV series on the Swahili supremely ignores the
scholarly Swahili experts on the Swahili people. He interviews none on
camera. Instead Gates decides to confront either carefully chosen or
randomly selected members of the Swahili community with racial-questions
which were abstracted from survey-forms of North American opinion polls.

The program is obsessed with RACE in American terms. Did the people Gates
was interviewing have the remotest idea what he was really talking about?
What is more, his translator seems determined to give the worst possible
interpretation of what was being said by interviewees in a place like
Lamu.

Who is the best authority on Muslim atrocities in Zanzibar? Well, of
course a Christian missionary priest in Zanzibar! Gates does not find it
necessary to balance the testimony of such a biased witness with anything
else. Any journalist worth his salt would have done better than Gates!

I thought that in episode three, which concerned the Trans-Atlantic slave
trade, Gates would at last regard the West and the white man as relevant
actors in the African tragedy. Before seeing the episode I said to a
colleague in Ohio that surely Gates could not deal with the Trans-Atlantic
slave trade without regarding the West and the white man as crucial!  Boy!
Was I wrong? Gates manages to make an African to say that without the
participation of Africans there would have been no slave trade! How naive
about power can we get?

Without the involvement of Africans, there would have been no colonialism
either. Without the involvement of Africans, there would have been no
apartheid. Without the involvement of African Americans, there would have
been no segregationist order in the Old South. Without Jewish capital,
there would have been less trans-Atlantic slave trade. Why did Gates pick
on the Asante (Ashanti) as collaborators in the trans-Atlantic slave-trade
and never mention European Jews at all as collaborators in the
slave-trade? (Leonard Jeffreys paid a price for involving the Jews in the
trade, but will Gates pay a price for involving the Asante?)

I was so afraid that Gates' fourth program would be insulting to Ethiopia
that I was relieved that it was merely disrespectful. I wished he was more
politely dressed when he was granted an audience to a major religious
leader. I wished he kept his sarcasm about the authenticity of the
Covenant in check. I wished he did not make as many snide remarks which
trivialized other people's values. And I wished viewers were not kept
informed on camera as to how many car breakdowns he had had. Surely he had
better footage of African scenes!

His fifth programme on Timbuktu returned to the issue of Africans
enslaving each other. Gates seemed incapable of glorifying Africa without
demonizing it in the second breath. Mali and Benin, countries of great
*ancient* kings, were also countries of *contemporary* slavery.

Gates refused to listen when he was told that the new "slave" could
disobey his master, and was free to take autonomous employment. Gates was
given this information and chose not to pursue it. Was it really a case of
slavery?

In this fifth episode Gates chose to denounce "the barbarity of female
circumcision". And yet the institution had just been mentioned in passing.
There was no attempt to introduce the viewer as to why millions of
Africans belonged to this culture of female circumcision in the first
place. Africans were not, after all, innate barbarians. So why had this
tradition survived for so long? The institution was mentioned as a
throw-away "play to the Western feminist gallery" (I am myself opposed to
female circumcision but I do not call its practitioners barbarians).

His sixth episode on Southern Africa was to be the least upsetting. Gates
did try to capture the glories of pre-colonial Southern Africa and did
pose some of the challenges of the post-colonial and post-apartheid eras.
But even this sixth program was more of a tourist travelogue than a
serious portrayal of a people. It is hard to believe that such a TV series
was the product of such a brilliant mind!

These are my first reactions. If I can bear to view the series again,
perhaps I should give it a second chance! But I fear that we have been let
down badly.


Ali Mazrui is Director, Institute of Global Cultural Studies and Albert
Schweitzer Professor in the Humanities, State University of New York at
Binghamton, New York, USA; Albert Luthuli Professor-at-Large, University
of Jos, Jos, Nigeria; Ibn Khaldun Professor-at-Large, School of Islamic
and Social Sciences, Leesburg, Virginia, USA; and the Andrew D. White
Professor-at-Large Emeritus and Senior Scholar in Africana Studies,
Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, USA.

-30-


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Louis Proyect
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