The Wonders of My Africa: An Africanist Historian's View of Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s Wonders of the Africa World

Joseph C. Miller, May 2000

Whether we regard our modern American homes as comfortable and secure or not, we all carry baggage from them when venturing as far as Africa. Even though we assure wary airline personnel that we are carrying nothing from unknown and perhaps dangerous parties, we still tend to pull out familiar mental fashions upon arrival in the heat of foreign climes. In the Wonders of the African World, Henry Louis Gates Jr., displays carefully selected American—and often highly personal—styles, whether it is in the T-shirts on his back or the heart on his sleeve. Gates has been sharply criticized elsewhere for the informality of the traveling clothes he wears on camera—some bearing the legends of "Harvard" and "Martha's Vineyard" (spelled in Hebrew).1 Here the issue is the contemporary and American perspective on the past that he displays in his filmed quest for lost kingdoms and cities—deliberately mixing the legendary with the historical—in ancient Africa.

The series follows Gates's pilgrimage into the myths and facts of Africa's past, a journey that takes him, first, up the Nile to the ruins of Nubia and Meroë (1200 B.C.E. to 400 C.E.) south of Lake Aswan, then to the cosmopolitan commercial cities on Lamu and Zanzibar islands along Africa's Indian Ocean Swahili coast (9th–19th centuries), and on again to the notorious hubs of the 18th- and 19th-century slave trade at the Dutch coastal "castle" of Elmina and the cosmopolitan (African, French, Brazilian) "Slave Coast" commercial town of Ouidah, as well as the Asante and Dahomey political regimes that supplied many of the captives sent through them. He then drops back in time to the shrines of classical Ethiopian Christianity at Axum (4th–6th centuries), Lalibela (12th–13th centuries), and Gondar (17th–18th centuries), across the continent to the world-renowned (16th century) West African university city and Saharan axis of intercontinental bullion flows at Timbuktu, and finally to southern Africa and the ruins of the massive 14th–15th-century stone-walled enclosure, dwellings, and fortifications at Great Zimbabwe, which was built on the profits of gold sent north through the Swahili towns.

Few, if any, places in the world have figured more intensely in the baggage of European and American professional history, community memories, and racial politics than Africa. "Europeans," Gates notes offscreen, "located some of their most far-fetched fantasies in the depths of sub-Saharan Africa."2 The effect of this video—and the explicit subject of the printed diary and reflections on his pilgrimage—is to explore the equivalent longings among African Americans. Against the background of modern racism, Africa's past—in good part because it was so little known—bore the burden of competing quests for self-justifying antecedents. Gates's own quest for these "wonders" in Africa—real and imagined—revolves around the profound sense of loss that he takes as basic to the experience of African American descendants of Africans seized as slaves and sent to America and thus deprived of their own heritages. This emphasis is realized most explicitly in the centrality in Gates's narrative of the vanished Ark of the Covenant that he both seeks and doubts—and, perhaps significantly, fails to glimpse—at the culmination of his travels in Christian Ethiopia. Gates presents the "wonders" of Africa that he selects in terms accessible to American viewers: first (and sometimes primarily) from the perspective of an American of African descent in Africa; second, by using the prism of North American conceptions of race; and third, by incorporating modern esteem for monumental structures, state power, literacy, and commercial success. This is all set against the profound, tragic dilemma of how he (and presumably the African Americans among his imagined viewers) should identify with people to whom he is bound by "color" but separated by their ancestors' rejection of his forebears by disposing of them to European slavers.

Racial justification, and justice, against neglect of Africa in the profession of history and the majority popular culture, forms the second axis of the series. Justification of Africa by highlighting ancient, but vanished, glories of this sort has a distinguished lineage among historians that dates back to W.E.B. Du Bois.3 This vision is as integral to the modern experience of Western racism as the dismissal of Africa as a continent lacking achievements worthy of respect (a view derived from Hegel that pervaded progressive history well into the second half of the 20th century), which Du Bois and others meant to refute.

All history is written out of present concerns, and modern racial condemnation made this a valid strategy, certainly until after World War II. Today professional historians in America that focus on Africa, and many Africans writing about their own pasts, all tend to view the continent's past through the color-blind lenses of liberal social science to free themselves from contemporary political-cultural concerns—precisely the concerns that give real force to Gates's wonderment. However, neither incorporates a vision of Africa in which Africans' own understandings of themselves serve as the bases for interpreting their past and present. In these films, Gates repeatedly confronts his African hosts with moral dilemmas of race and slaving that derive from the American experience; in response, he receives polite (and not as uncomprehending as he sometimes seems to assume them to be) suggestions that the issues, for Africans, are—and presumably were—different. Displacing Africa's "wonders" to ancient times, as Gates does, risks implicitly consigning more recent centuries, including the present, to the stereotypes of disease and difficulty that pervade Western media; in fact, the video sequences return again and again to Gates's discomforts, sometimes even intimate ones, during his travels in modern Africa.4

Gates thus misses the seventh "wonder," truer to Africa's past: the alternative perspectives that form the focus of current professional historiography in Africa and that his African hosts consistently tried to explain to him on screen. Teachers intending to use this video series and/or the accompanying web site in their classrooms—as the elaborate commercial promotion of related materials clearly invites—will want to look closely at the elegant companion volume. In its often-eloquent introduction, he sets this racialized image of Africa within the politics of race in contemporary American culture. For other video-serialized images, Basil Davidson's Africa: A Voyage of Discovery remains a classic liberal vision of the 1970s, and Ali Mazrui filmed a pan-Africanist panorama to integrate modern Africa's "triple heritage" of local, Muslim, and European historical experiences.5 Africans' own more recent visions have not yet been realized in lavishly funded and prominently distributed documentaries on these BBC/PBS scales, but visual statements of Africans' experiences of their own pasts, in many registers, are becoming increasingly available from directors and producers based in Africa, including those of the Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka.

—Joseph C. Miller teaches at the University of Virginia.

Notes

1. Academic reactions, many of them highly critical, appeared almost at once after broadcast of the video on Africa-related listservs such as H-AFRICA, H-AFRLITCINE, H-AFRO-AM, H-AFRARTS, and H-AFRTEACH (for details about these lists and ways of accessing them, visit http://h-net.msu.edu), as well as on cultural lists (e.g., BRC-NEWS [Black Radical Congress]); by the time of the African Studies Association annual meeting (early November), concern about the series occasioned an ad hoc roundtable that was, by a considerable margin, the most widely attended session at the meeting. The key statements have been assembled in a special issue of the on-line journal West Africa Review at http://www.westafricareview.com/war/.

2. See the print companion volume: Henry Louis Gates Jr., Wonders of the African World (New York: Knopf, 1999), 249.

3. Gates provides an often-eloquent evocation of African American intellectual history in the print volume, Wonders of the African World, chapter 1 et passim.

4. The printed Wonders of the African World also emphasizes these but reflects more thoughtfully on the ambiguity of the resulting love-hate relationship with the actuality of a lost homeland, and concludes (p. 256) by justifying his celebration of ancient glories as a basis for self-respect among Africans whom he sees laboring under the burdens of three centuries of slaving and most of a century of colonial rule. Africans would have to speak for themselves as to whether they find their condition as demoralized as Gates' formulation seems to imply.

5. A Voyage of Discovery, Thames Television, 1984, eight segments; currently distributed as four videocassettes by Home Vision, Chicago. The Africans: A Triple Heritage, in nine segments, for WETA-TV and the BBC, 1986, and received very critically in Republican political circles of the time for its alleged critique of U.S. policy in Africa in a project sponsored (in part) with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities. There is also a companion volume of the same title (London: BBC Productions, 1986).