Skip Gates in Africa

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Wed Oct 27 13:52:22 MDT 1999

The widely anticipated PBS TV "Wonders of the African World"
( series began on Monday night. Hosted by Louis
Henry (Skip) Gates, director of the African-American Studies department at
Harvard, the two shows I've seen so far seem a curious mix of genuinely
interesting historical and cultural insights and Gates' painful almost
neurotic grappling with the problem of African racial identity.

Monday night's first episode focused on the Nubian Kingdom and the Swahili
trading centers of East Africa. The descendants of the Nubian kingdom now
live in the territory that overlaps southern Egypt and northern Sudan. They
are ethnically related to sub-Saharan peoples, who Gates refers to
repeatedly as his ancestors. He is proud of the fact that black Pharaohs
ruled over all of Egypt for over a century. In the ancient city of Meroe he
wanders through ancient ruins focusing his flashlight on the African
features of wall painting subjects. By the same token, he is anxious to
blame the Arabs of Egypt for flooding the Nubian valley as a consequence of
Aswan Dam construction, thereby making archaelogical riches lost to
history. He keeps pressing people who were displaced by the flooding to
condemn the "racism" of the Nasser regime, but they firmly uphold some of
the social gains that the dam produced.

Cultural travelogue mixed with racial introspection continues as Gates
makes his way down the east coast of Africa. The Swahilis are historically
the ethnic result of inter-marriage between Arab traders and the local
African population. When a citizen of Mombasa refers to himself as an
"Arab", Gates chuckles and comments to his PBS viewers that the man looked
like Mike Tyson rather than any Arab he'd ever seen. In Zanzibar, he finds
that many local denizens insist that they have Persian roots. In the
Swahili world, many of the more privileged layers possess carefully
researched family trees that are valued for their ability to find
non-Subsaharan origins. Gates compares this to the racial inferiority
complex that causes some African-Americans to refer to their Cherokee or
Seminole roots. I found it sad that Gates is incapable of transcending
these kinds of "blood" symbols and to focus more on what unites people who
have been victims of power and greed.

Last night's episode took Gates into Ethiopia where the issue of racial
identity--thankfully--did not play much of a role. The Ethiopians not only
were never conquered by an outside ethnic group--hence making intermarriage
a moot point--they seem refreshingly oblivious to racial identity
questions. Gates did manage to grill a Falasha, or Ethiopian Jew, about his
Jewish authenticity. Did he speak Hebrew? Did he want to go to Israel? The
youth was clearly uncomfortable with Gates's line of questioning. The best
part of this segment was the photography of the Ethiopian interior,
including the ancient city of Maxum. I imagine that a history of Ethiopia
would make for some gripping reading, since the country has such an unusual

>From Ethiopia Gates travels deep into the heart of the slave trade region
in Dahomey, where his angst pours out in huge buckets. It turns out that
Africans were deeply involved with the slave trade. He tracks down the
descendants of a Brazilian slave trader who had over a dozen African
concubines and over a hundred children. They revere him as a esteemed
ancestor, but Gates can barely contain his disgust at his African brethren
who sold his own relatives into slavery. He walks along the beach with a
woman of Benin, who belongs to this family, and interrogates her. Don't you
feel bad about what you did? She frowns and says that yes, she does.

What this show leaves out entirely is the political economy of slavery. For
that you have to go to Basil Davidson. It is too bad that PBS could not
find anybody more qualified than Gates to write and direct a show like
this. I am sure that Manning Marable could have done a much better job.
Upon reflection, that's why Petroleum Broadcasting System must have chosen
Gates. Despite the show's obfuscations and Gates's hand-wringing, I urge
folks in the US to watch it. Tonight's episode (5 of 6) deals with "The
Road to Timbuktu/ Lost Cities of the South." All the episodes will be
repeated this Saturday.

Louis Proyect

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