Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Africa: Through Skip Gates' Eyes

Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

Africa: Through Skip Gates' Eyes

Article excerpt

In his poem "Heritage," Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen once asked, "What is Africa to me?" Harvard University's Dr. Henry Louis "Skip" Gates Jr. struggles with the very same question in a PBS documentary that will air next month over the course of three nights.

Throughout the six-part Wonders of the African World, hosted and written by Gates, there is an ever-present tension between his romanticized view of the motherland and the hard realities of race and identity on the continent.

While celebrating the culture and searching for the great ancient civilizations of Africa, Gates pursues the task of reconciling his own feelings about a lost history as well as challenging the viewers' Western-influenced myths about the continent.

But what Gates does best in this documentary -- amidst a colorful backdrop of stunning landscapes and interesting people -- is tell stories. Stories from his childhood, stories from his first travels to Africa as a student, and stories of a great African past are all intricately woven together like the threads of a piece of kente cloth.

He begins the series by telling stories of the Black Pharaohs that he heard as a child. Gates admits that in his youth he never really believed that there actually were Black men and women called Nubians who ruled all of Egypt.

Discovering that the ancient kingdom of Nubia was real, therefore, was especially jarring for this young West Virginia boy who had been reared in a world that demanded "White was right."

Gates travels from Cairo to Aswan, Egypt, in search of ancient Nubia only to discover that the gateway to the original city is covered by the Nile because of the Aswan dam built in 1960.

In Sudan, however, he exhibits shear joy while walking through the lost city of Meroe -- a royal capital and Nubian trading center for almost 1,000 years -- on the site of what may have been a college or university.

"That must have been the department of Nubian studies over there," he jokes with his guide. In Meroe's pyramids, Gates marvels at the pictograms of the Black Pharaohs and the fact he's the only tourist visiting these tombs in comparison to the crowded pyramids of Giza in Egypt. The series is full of ironies like this.

Sailing down the East Coast of Africa in search of the Swahili culture, he finds a people reluctant to claim their African ancestry, preferring to claim the parentage of Arab and Persian settlers, which brings higher social status.

As he learns more about the 2,000-year-old culture created from an amalgamation, of Arab and African culture, Gates is reminded of the old saying, "If you're White, you're all right. …

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