African,African-American scholars clash over
Prof. Gates' PBS series on Africa

Special to USAfricaonline.com

The research by a well-known Harvard professor of African Studies into the history and current lives of his ancestors has seen the equivalent of a torrent of criticism and sweeping acclaim from different persons and scholars. The issue of Africa's history has never been one without strong debate. Hence, it is little surprise that the fierce intellectual bout which started in October, 1999 is raging into the new millennium. The television series at issue is called, "Wonders of the African World" is largely the work of Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr.

Such heavyweight African scholars like Kenya's Prof. Ali Mazrui of Africa, himself, a writer/co-producer of the BBC documentary, The Africans, Nigeria's Nobel Laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka and a host of others. These intellectuals are flexing their mental muscles from public radio studios all the way to the shoulders of the information superhighway. Prof. Mazrui, who wrote an introduction for Prof. Gates Jr.'s companion book lamented that he had not seen the televsision series when he wrote the blurb. "I believe the (televisison) series is more divisive than the book."

Mazrui accused Gates Jr.'s series shown on PBS for dis-Africanizing ancient Egypt, allowing ancient Egyptians to become racist Whites trampling underfoot Blacks from Upper Nile. In the second episode, Ali Mazrui faulted Gates Jr's use of racial-questions abstracted from survey-forms of North American opinion polls on Swahili community without talking to scholarly Swahili experts. Mazrui in a paper titled, "A Preliminary Critique of the T.V. Series by Henry Louis Gates Jr.", complained that the program was obsessed with Race in American terms. He asked, "Did the people Gates was interviewing have the remotest idea what he was really talking about?" He continued, "What is more, his translators seem determined to give the worst possible interpretation of what was being said by interviewees in a place like Lamu."

Just like Mazrui acknowledged that Gates is a friend with whom he has profound disagreements, Soyinka underlines the point that, "Mazrui and I .... are ancient adversaries. With this level of indecorous conduct, I am reconciled to the fact that we are likely to remain so for a long time to come." Soyinka, a Woodruff Professor of the Arts at Emory University in Atlanta seemed to agree with another critic, Charles Johnson, that there were other equally competent minds that could have commented on Gates' work beside Mazrui.

Amongst the errors pointed out by Mazrui was Gates' idea of asking Christian missionary priest in Zanzibar about Muslims atrocities in Zanzibar without making any effort to balance a testimony from a witness who was prone to be biased. "Any journalist worth his salt would have done better than Gates," Mazrui grumbled.

Soyinka does not buy Mazrui's criticism of Gates' work. He went on to write that, "However Ali Mazrui may present himself, he is being a coveted plaintiff in his own cause, and it is my deeply held conviction that the delights of objective criticism and intellectual enlargement have been sullied by his energetic, propulsive voice in this exercise. It crosses the ethical bounds of intellectualism and deserves the condemnation of all who believe that the virtues of criticism transcend self-interest."

In the Trans-Atlantic slave trade featured in episode three, Mazrui condemned Gates for disregarding "the West and White man as actors in the African tragedy." Gates, he wrote, managed to make an African say that, without the participation of Africans, there would have been no slave trade. Mazrui charged that Gates avoided mentioning the involvement of European Jews as collaborators in the Slave-trade just to avoid the kind of price paid by Leonard Jeffreys. Because of that fear, Gates picked Africans, like the Asante, as sole collaborators, Mazrui concluded. According to Mazrui, when Gates was not insulting (as was the case in episode four on Ethiopia), he was disrespectful. He questioned Gates' manner of dressing while appearing before religious leaders in Ethiopia; his sarcasm, snide remarks, and other behaviors that trivialized the values of Africans. "Gates seemed incapable of glorifying Africa without demonizing it in the second breath," Mazrui maintained. Gates handling of Female circumcision and the so-called "new slavery" also received the wrath of Mazrui. "Africans were not, after all, innate barbarians," Mazrui argued.

Gates, he harshly observed, was simply playing "to the Western Feminist gallery." Mazrui, a director of the Institute of Global Cultural Studies at the State University of New York, generally believes that Gates did not undertake a serious portrayal of the African people. "It is hard to believe that such a T.V. series was a product of such a brilliant mind," Mazrui wrote regrettably. In his reaction to the raging controversy, Professor Wole Soyinka commented that Mazrui should have kept quiet about Gates' T.V. series. "Ali Mazrui," he wrote, "has a fifty per cent stake at least in the reception that may be accorded to a work that, in effect, constitutes a challenge to a long-held monopoly." It would be recalled that Mazrui's "Africa: The Triple Heritage," until now, remained the only T.V. series by a Black scholar on the subject of Africa's Past and Present. W

In her submission, Prof. Omofolabo Ajayi opined that she was least concerned with what Gates was wearing, and that she glanced over some of Gates disrespectful or casual attitude. She however agreed with critic, Garth Myers, that "Wonders of the African World" is a Travelogue by an African-American on an emotional soul-searching experience. Ajayi expressed her disappointment at the apparent lack of factual presentation, focused research, straightforward analysis, and a balance of personal quest with a critical approach. Gates subscription to the common line that "Africa is in such a mess today because Africans sold their people off to slavery," Ajayi wrote, was astounding. Ajayi, an Associate Professor of Women's Studies, Theatre, & Film at the University of Kansas lamented that "until this bogey hurdle of slavery and slave-trade is removed," Africans and African Americans would continue to wallow in ignorance and miseducation, distortion, and prejudices. She called on Africans to begin to discuss slavery and to begin to examine it. "When we get over the disappointment that "Wonders of the African World" is different from our expectations," she wrote, "I hope we can use it as a teaching tool balanced with other relevant tools. After all, that is how we teach." This debate continues at fever pitch at various Internet sites. African scholars from Europe and North America have suddenly found something to exercise their minds on. Meanwhile, Prof. Gates Jr. is currently making his rounds on talk shows, promoting his book. As the fuss continues, Gates and the producers of the work are smiling all the way to the bank.

Regardless of all the conflicting arguments and limitations of this new documentary, Prof. Gates should be commended for opening additional perspectives and analytical insights into Africa's ancient and recent history. Readers' reaction and views on this issue will be published.

Gates interpretation of Islam troubles me
As an up and coming professional in the U.S. I thought the show was informative; however, as I talked with fellow citizens who caught glimpes of the show they reacted as one of the critics did about Prof. Gates interpretation of the Muslims in Africa. I thought the show was informative, but since I heard that he did muslims an injustice therefore I need to order the tape and view it in its entirety.

If Prof. Gates did do an injustice, somewhat through his "exposition", we should remember who funded and who gave the final call on what should be edited. As a person who lives in America and witness what atrosicites are done to those whom proclaim the Islamic faith and if one was to realize who are the "enemies" of muslims then we could see why what was aired was aired. By NEHEMIAH28@aol.com

Gates should be commended
It is refreshing to see an African-American scholar look at his heritage from an informed, even if incomplete perspective. I learned new things from his PBS documentary.

Instead of always complaining about what 'White folks' have done to misinterprete our history, Gates took on the difficult task of writing about. Thank you Prof. Gates and USAfricaonline.com for projecting Africa's image in a serious and informed way. Together, we can move mountains. It's never too late
Obi Igbokwe, Enugu (Nigeria)


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